A speak-up culture is an environment where employees and officers of an organisation have confidence that they can report issues to management without fear of negative consequences.
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A speak-up culture exists when concerns can be raised and addressed internally with diplomacy, trust and discretion.
For a successful speak-up culture, you should confidently be able to raise concerns with a designated officer, department or your manager. This includes within meetings or bodies that you participate in.
Moving towards better practice
A speak-up culture is effectively a self-audit process that enables an organisation to strengthen its internal governance in a way that's tangible for both officers and staff. Officers and staff of organisations with a strong speak-up culture will feel confident reporting any potential wrongdoing directly to management. Management can then change processes and policies to address and reduce the risks identified by the report.
Creating a speak-up culture will build confidence in the organisation’s integrity and build stronger levels of engagement.
Kinds of issues
Issues can be raised about:
- internal operations
- suspected wrongdoing
- potential breach of the RO Act
- internal rules or policies.
Sometimes, there may be no actual wrongdoing but rather a lack of understanding of the relevant process or approach.
Benefits of developing a speak-up culture
Adopting a speak-up culture is an efficient way for management to become aware of and respond to issues quickly.
When organisations investigate internal reports, they may find issues and concerns. These can then be addressed appropriately, and steps put into place to prevent them reoccurring. It may be that the issues can be resolved in-house, or it could be you need to work with the regulator or external advisors. Using best practice policies and processes to deal with internal issues can transform an organisation in positive ways.
Sometimes an investigation will find everything was done correctly, but there are improvements that could be made to how the conduct or decision is perceived by members and officers, and to make things clearer. This too is a valuable insight. Making these changes can reduce the risk to the organisation of further mistaken complaints or official inquiry.
Example: General Manager of the FWC v Thompson
In the case of General Manager of the Fair Work Commission v Thompson, it was alleged that the former officer used the union’s funds to make personal purchases and attempted to conceal the nature of those purchases.
The former officer directed staff to record his personal purchases incorrectly as ‘meeting expenses’ or ‘telephone conferences’. The Court found that the former officer had an obligation to correctly record the true nature of those payments and had breached their duty.
In this instance, a speak-up culture might have empowered staff to raise their concerns about the nature of the expenses and the way they were being asked to record them.
How an organisation can achieve a speak-up culture
A speak-up culture comes from the top. It must be demonstrated through strong leadership, compassion, transparency, and integrity so that these values become associated with the culture of the organisation. Senior officers must act in a way that is consistent with their messaging, raising concerns, following up reports and most importantly – making changes to process and policy to improve the organisation.
Other steps include:
- enabling people to raise their issues anonymously
- respecting and maintaining confidentiality
- generating policies and processes for internal complaints to be made by members, staff, and officers, so that complaints are investigated and addressed appropriately, and complainants are supported. Include timeframes and appropriate responses so that staff and officers know what to expect from the process
- ensuring relevant staff are adequately trained in these policies and procedures, and that refresher training is undertaken
- developing a healthy, supportive culture in your organisation where people feel comfortable to tell management about their concerns. Model this culture from the top down by demonstrating the behaviour and expectation that this will be the behaviour of all staff
- encouraging people to speak-up about any wrongdoing they notice, by letting all staff know that such information will be appreciated and addressed, and that speaking up will not cause them any detriment
- responding by investigating any issues raised and acting upon them, and then communicating to all staff that an issue was raised internally that enabled it to be dealt with efficiently
- considering whether you could form a dedicated committee to receive, investigate and internally deal with complaints. This should be done in accordance with your organisation’s rules. The committee may consist of a designated official to receive disclosures and escalate them as necessary; an investigator to gather evidence and prepare recommended outcomes, and a nominated senior officer to receive the recommendations and decide on appropriate action to be taken. It is also recommended that a whistleblower protection officer be appointed, who would ensure that any eligible disclosers who report disclosable conduct do not receive any adverse action because of making the disclosure
- acting to ensure that if someone does experience a negative outcome because of making a complaint, everyone involved knows that it's unacceptable and future instances will not be tolerated
- ensuring the process is visible, approachable, transparent and trusted. If there's a designated person they must have strong leadership skills, so that people feel safe and confident making reports to them.
Useful tip: Identify a second officer in your policies to receive reports
This is particularly important if the relevant person is either the source or the focus of the allegation. It also allows people to approach someone who makes them feel most comfortable.
What to do after an internal disclosure is made
This guide doesn’t cover the steps for handing internal complaints or external whistleblowers. Find out how to effectively investigate a protected disclosure within your registered organisation.
Developing trust, good culture and confidence
A big part of having effective internal complaints practices is ensuring that the people who raise concerns are adequately supported. A person who makes a complaint may be quite anxious after doing so, especially if they don't know what to expect.
Consider whether your internal process or policy should include information on supporting the people involved in a complaint.
It's essential that your process is followed whenever applicable, and that it's known by all your officers and employees. Consistency is key to ensure your organisation’s ethical culture and values thrive.
The process must be followed regardless of the situation, who complains, or which group or person may be involved. Everyone is accountable.
Following these developments mean your organisation, and its leadership, build a good reputation and solid trust.
Disclosers may be protected after they make an internal complaint
It’s important to remember that an eligible discloser, such as an officer or employee of the relevant organisation, who makes a report of disclosable conduct internally may still be eligible for protection against reprisals. Disclosable conduct is conduct that's suspected to be a contravention of any law of the Commonwealth.
Building a speak-up culture takes time
Building a speak-up culture can be a slow process that involves consistently listening, investigating, acting and protecting your officers and employees.
If people feel confident that they'll be supported and issues are dealt with, they're more likely to come forward as soon as they're aware of an issue.
This enables your organisation to get on the front foot and resolve any issues before they become a bigger problem.