No one in a position of seniority or with a stakeholding in a company culture would say their organization has a ‘closed-door policy’, but the common ‘open door policy’ approach is not an effective foundation for cultivating a Speak Up culture. Why?
James Detert, a professor of business administration and the associate dean of Executive Degree Programs and Leadership Initiatives at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business, highlights an uncomfortable but obvious truth: people don’t like to rock the boat.
Detert’s research shows that no matter how open the management, people are more likely to keep quiet than to question authority, initiatives, or people at work.
So no matter how good the intentions, well-meaning initiatives to encourage speaking up, openness and transparency fall short for two key reasons: a fear of consequences (embarrassment, isolation, low-performance ratings, lost promotions, and even firing) and a sense of futility (the belief that saying something won’t make a difference, so why bother?)
If this is the case for simply speaking up on day-to-day matters, how much is this sentiment amplified when it comes to raising a grievance about misconduct? Open door attitudes are simply too passive. People still have to initiate a conversation, often with someone more senior than them and on that manager’s turf, which can often be intimidating.
Anonymous feedback is not the solution
The ‘go-to’ for canvassing employee feedback is the periodical anonymous survey, intended to give employees a confidential vehicle for voicing their honest thoughts about the organization. The mechanism for misconduct reporting is often similar – an anonymous phone hotline or a webform. But these mechanisms are counterproductive for three reasons, according to Detert’s research:
First, an anonymous reporting mechanism reinforces people’s fears about speaking up. The subtext is “It’s not safe to share your views openly in this organization.”
Second, anonymity can set off a witch hunt. When employees provided negative feedback or reported misconduct through hotlines and suggestion boxes, some bosses demanded to know “Who said this?!” If people are going to libraries or coffee shops and using public computers to complete online employee surveys due to a fear of being tracked, you have a culture where people are suspicious of stated openness and fear speaking up.
Finally, it can be difficult to address issues while protecting the identity of the people who raised them. Reporting harassment, bullying abuse or unethical behavior will do no good unless an ombudsperson can assess the extent of the problem, explore the causes, and develop recommendations. That means interviews need to be conducted, stories corroborated and additional data collected – typically from the accuser.
Accountability has to work both ways
Open door policies and the canvassing of anonymous opinions are often merely lip service to transparency and openness. In order for people to trust the system, they need to see action and that means everyone has to be accountable. Detert refers to a project in which a large organization created a task force of senior managers to understand the causes of employee silence and propose solutions. The task force conducted more than 200 interviews across many sites and at all levels. “But when it came time to present the findings to leadership, they failed to report how often they had heard about top management’s candor-inhibiting behavior.”
In speaking up – about speaking up, no less – employees were rewarded with a toothless process that reinforced their existing belief that their complaints would make no difference and were not even welcome. That sets a dangerous precedent.
In order for speaking up to become part of a culture, it has to become typical behavior. So that it’s OK to ask questions, and it’s OK to use the misconduct reporting tool. That’s what it’s there for.