Case Study: Speaking Up at Fortune 100 Company
Leveling Up Employee Voice Empowerment
As part of the People Department at a Fortune 100 company, our team was tasked to increase ethical behavior and manage and mitigate the legal risks of unethical behavior for the company. To understand the culture of ethical behavior, we sent out a survey asking, “If you saw something happen that didn’t feel right, would you speak up?” Some people answered, “No, it wouldn’t serve my career,” or “No, I fear retaliation.”
We were aware that certain companies have had retaliation issues in the past where employees had spoken up and faced negative repercussions. This happened most often to employees from underrepresented communities. We were also aware that every company has an issue with people not speaking up. What is reported on paper is only a small percentage of what occurs in reality because situations are typically underreported.
The challenge for us was to foster a company culture of respect – one where employees felt empowered to speak up.
To improve the work environment and company culture, we identified two barriers:
1. Employees didn’t feel like the company supported them in keeping managers accountable.
2. Employees didn’t have the skill set to intervene in non-legal issues such as rudeness or micro-aggressions.
To garner buy-in from employees, we helped them articulate and visualize the workplace culture they wanted to work in, and see how a “Speak up” culture was part of the vision.
We successfully advocated and argued for the expansion of the company’s “Speak Up” policy, which only focused on reporting illegal behavior, to a “Stand Up” policy, which included intervening whenever employees saw something not right. By doing so, we shifted the company culture from merely enforcing legally regulated behaviors (such as discrimination or sexual harassment) to encouraging and building a positive culture where everyone was respected. Companies that have codified respect will naturally have fewer cases of unlawful harassment.
We targeted the root cause and developed a holistic curriculum around empowering the employee to intervene. This included modules on intervention, from speaking up in the moment, to talking to the person in private later. It also included ways to redirect an unhelpful conversation by leveraging techniques negotiators use to de-escalate difficult situations. We included video-based scenarios that highlighted unethical behavior, allowed participants to reflect on how they would respond, and showed how the scenario was resolved. By training on these topics, we were empowering the employees to have the awareness, vocabulary, language, and capability to speak up about diversity, equity, and inclusion concerns. We hoped to convert “bystanders” to “up-standers.”
When the company first implemented this kind of training, it took almost a year for some teams to complete the material. Since people were not taking these topics seriously, we started posting results by department to help drive accountability. Department leaders took notice and now we have 97%+ completion within a month of training assignment.
Results of the changes are still forthcoming as we wait to see more longitudinal trends but we anticipate more substantive reporting on misbehavior as well as an overall improvement on ethical behavior.