Overcoming whistleblowing nerves: Why employees avoid speaking out

What do WorldCom and Lockheed Martin have in common? They were both transformed by employees not afraid to speak up. This is a valuable trait in business, but it’s also rare. Our Speaking Truth to Power survey found that silence is a default setting for many modern employees. It stems from a complex mixture of privilege and perception.

In 1943, Lockheed Martin’s outspoken chief research engineer Kelly Johnson started the Skunk Works, a secretive division that designed amazing aircraft at lightning speed. 59 years later, a diligent three-person team of WorldCom employees led by internal audit VP Cynthia Cooper forced the company to admit $3.8bn in phony accounting.

Johnson was an example of an outspoken intrapreneur. Cooper was an internal whistleblower who corrected her company’s ethics. These employees shared a valuable trait: a willingness to demand improvement. Fostering this can improve the health of a company. Researchers at the University of Utah and Geroge Washington University School of business found that internal whistleblowing can reduce material lawsuits and lower settlement amounts, for example.

Our survey of almost 3,700 employees spanning all seniority levels found this characteristic lacking today. Many employees hesitate to speak up in the workplace, whether to expose wrongdoing or to introduce valuable new ideas. Why?

There are several related factors in play. The first is a blindness to privilege. Those who enjoy the status quo don’t see the problem.

Senior managers trust that others, especially junior staff, will voice their opinions. However, this isn’t true. 34% of junior employees (who may have more visibility into misconduct and inefficiency in everyday operations) would remain silent after discovering malpractice, compared to just 7% of senior managers.

Fear is a powerful silencer. 17% of juniors cited fear of punishment if they spoke out about risks to their organisation. Employees reported being denied promotions and autonomy in the workplace. One company even fired and silenced a woman who reported a workplace bully.

In fact, women were more afraid to speak out than men. Self-doubt and a fear of critical judgement by others who would make them feel ‘silly’ were an almost entirely female trait in our survey.

So, there’s a disconnect along both seniority and gender lines in modern business. That schism helps to preserve misconduct. 8% of respondents knew of something that could negatively impact their business and did nothing about it. 73% had valuable ideas to share that could improve their organization’s performance, but 38% of them wouldn’t do so via official channels.

Conversations need more care

For things to change, we must rethink our role in conversations and consider how we can be agents of change. Today, many employees often don’t. They have what the study calls a ‘superiority illusion’, viewing themselves as better communicators than others and not noticing problems in their own behaviour.

An example of this is a failure to acknowledge racist or sexist bias when listening to employees. Only 2-3% of employees said that they ‘usually’ or 'always’ have social race or gender bias that affects how they listen, with no executive board members admitting this at all.

When acknowledging differences in gender behaviour, men blamed it on a female lack of skill rather than acknowledging shortcomings in workplace culture.

Individual employees can help address these issues by admitting that they are part of the problem and have some work to do, rather than externalising the issues. Companies can also help create a more vocal workplace by changing where and how conversations occur and fostering closer relationships between those involved.

Employees feel least able to speak during formal meetings, both because they are reluctant to embarrass others when reporting misconduct, or to invite embarrassment by workplace bullies who shoot down their ideas. Juniors don’t feel that there’s a forum for them to talk.

The answer is to build informal channels and encourage one-to-one dialogues where employees will feel more comfortable discussing sensitive topics or offering fresh ideas. It also involves creating stronger relationships with their immediate superiors. Line managers are the linchpins of a listening culture.

Unfortunately, lack of time was a prevalent barrier for middle and senior management. Revitalising communication channels means codifying these relationships into management working patterns, making time and space for active listening.

These complex factors are all interconnected. It's up to all employees to navigate them, but it's especially important that those with the most power make that journey welcoming. Communication is key in any company. Choking it off is like cutting the supply of blood and oxygen to the brain.

Encouraging employees to speak up has become an organisational imperative in order to identify misconduct and malpractice at an early point and to garner innovative ideas in a competitive marketplace. It is also a personal imperative; our choices about what to say at work determine our reputation, career progression, engagement and personal fulfilment.

The Speaking Truth to Power survey was led by Megan Reitz, Professor of Leadership and Dialogue at Hult Ashridge where she speaks, researches, consults and supervises on the intersection of leadership, change, dialogue and mindfulness. She is on the Thinkers50 Radar of global business thinkers and HR Magazine's Most Influential listing and has presented her research to audiences throughout the world.

Megan also contributes unique podcasts, insightful video content and research publications to the Hult Ashridge online learning platform, Virtual Ashridge. This is completed by content developed and curated by leading Ashridge faculty and thought leaders across industry. We are offering a free trial of Virtual Ashridge to help you explore this unique learning platform. Register for your free trial now

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