How can speak-up systems be truly effective in complex global organisations?

GoodCorporation Business Ethics debate at the House of Lords – debate summary

Building a truly effective speak-up system in a global organisation is extremely challenging. While a single reporting system may be desirable, how can such a system be devised and implemented when attitudes towards speaking out or whistleblowing vary dramatically from country to country? For large global organisations, this presents a real problem.  

Any form of one-size-fits-all approach that seeks to impose a particular system without building consensus, will be doomed to failure. So, what are the challenges and how can they be overcome? 


  • Cultural differences to speaking out are real, deep rooted and very varied. This can manifest itself in a number of ways on a county by country basis such as an ingrained aversion towards any form of challenge to authority, a total refusal to call a ‘helpline’ or simple fear and mistrust.  
  • Cynicism is also very real, employees are often wary of the impact of speaking out. Does the company really want to know? What difference will it make? How can I change anything? 
  • Developing a speak-up culture is difficult, but essential. Getting employees, contractors and even third parties to highlight a possible problem early, can be crucial to avoiding a much more serious problem later on. But how can corporates persuade people to raise an early-warning alert, before a problem becomes a significant risk for the business? 
  • Proper protection: evidence suggests that whistleblowers have a hard time in the workplace, often ostracised by colleagues and/or pushed out of their job. How can a company incentivise or encourage the reporting of real concerns? 
  • Correct usage: Should an effective speak-up system be distinct from HR grievances/concerns and if so, how can this be achieved? 

Suggested approaches: 

  • Culture cannot be ignored. Businesses should take account of different cultural sensitivities towards speak-up and adapt their proposed systems on a country-by country basis to get the desired outcomes. If it is known that a helpline is unlikely to be used (France, Germany, Japan, Italy for example) offer alternative systems such as a dedicated email box or walk in problem-solving surgeries/forums. 
  • Position speak-up as a route to strengthen and develop the business. Shift the dial away from informing or ‘snitching’ by showing that the raising of concerns is seen as a welcome and necessary part of business improvement. Build problem sharing into team meetings, invite feedback at shop-floor level, create a listening culture where people are expected to challenge when something does not seem right? 
  • Recognition: Demonstrate approval for those raising issues by communicating appropriate examples of issues raised and dealt with. This shows that the information was well received by the organisation and was acted on to improve systems/processes/operations, so building trust in the system. Awards could be considered, but this was felt by some to be too high-profile, possibly focussing unwanted attention on the individual. 
  • Zero-tolerance of retribution: This must be clearly communicated to all staff with sanctions for any manager/staff member acting against an individual who speaks out. It must also be seen to work in practice, with anyone raising a concern actively supported after the fact.  
  • Training: Good training for those operating the systems is essential. Where a phone line or email system is in use, the person receiving the information will need the right training and skills to be able to deal with concerns raised appropriately. This will involve knowing where to focus attention to solve the problem (Is it an HR issue/operational breach/financial irregularity etc.) and also how to identify whether or not it is malicious and if so how to deal with it. To instil confidence in the system, issues raised must be consistently dealt with. 
  • Protection: The company must have a proper system in place for protecting an employee who raises a concern while an investigation is in place. This should include some form of pastoral care, recognising that it can be extremely worrying to be part of such a process.
  • Managing expectations: Handling concerns will need to be sensitively dealt with; not every issue raised will be a genuine problem that requires action on the part of the organisation. Some problems may be very hard to solve and will take time. 
  • Visibility: Speak-up systems must be visible and accessible to third parties as well as employees if they are to be truly effective. 
  • Demonstrating effectiveness: Where a compliance team is able to remove an individual who is responsible for wrong-doing, following a speak-up, this can generate significant confidence in the organisation. Also, where a manager tries to take revenge on a whistleblower, high-profile action to protect the person can send out a very important ‘demonstration effect’. 

In addition to the challenges and potential solutions the discussion explored some wider issues. Rewards for whistleblowers were discussed. While it was recognised that although most whistleblowers in the States do not get a reward, the majority tend to lose their jobs, so some form of financial compensation could be justified. Others felt that rewards create a conflict of interests; is it better to raise an issue internally or speak out publically and hope for a large reward? Safeguarding personal data around whistleblowers is also a consideration and businesses need to liaise with their data controller to ensure that this process is robust. This is a particular issue in Germany for example. 

The GoodCorporation View 

Implementing an effective speak-up system requires businesses to demonstrate that they are committed to an open-door approach. In organisations where this is well embedded, most concerns and problems can be raised and dealt with directly by management as part of day-to-day business operations, without the need to use a confidential reporting system. 

From the discussion, it is clear that establishing an effective system is of crucial importance for businesses. The best starting point for achieving this might be a culture survey which would identify employees’ views on speaking out and reporting concerns. Companies should also asses the systems already in place. Some have multiple lines for different concerns; this can lead to confusion and the possibility of not dealing effectively with the issues being raised. Businesses should also keep their systems under review, tailoring the reporting mechanism by location, as necessary, to reflect any cultural sensitivities. Policy and practice should be reviewed by senior management on a regular basis so senior leaders have a clear idea of the concerns being raised and how they are handled. 

A sound system for reporting is a worthwhile investment as good whistleblowing procedures don’t just detect malpractice, they deter it. GoodCorporation’s Whistleblowing Framework is a useful guide.