Why People Don’t Speak Up at Work

Why don’t people speak up at work? Someone must have known, but they failed to speak up. If they had, your financial and other losses may have been a lot less.


Surely, in an age of hard-earned business reputations being ruined in a day, and in which one large fraud can be the last straw, you want to be the first to know about wrongdoing in your organisation?


Credible information provided by concerned employees is an organisation’s best hope in the early detection of harmful activity, yet far too often those who know have turned a blind eye to ethical misconduct in their midst. We need to understand this phenomenon if we are to succeed in changing employee attitudes to speaking up.


Here we identify 10 of the reasons why your employees might not blow the whistle when you need them to. For each reason, we present the typical management assumption, contrast this to the commonly-held employee perspective, and suggest ways to close the gap between these divergent realities and encourage whistleblowing in the workplace.

  1. They don’t know that you want them to

We assume employees know that we want to hear about threats to the organisation. You may be sure that you have made encouraging statements to this effect from time to time and that your expectations are obvious to your employees. 


On the contrary, the chances are that unless you make your expectations explicit and emphasize them regularly, that your message on this topic was quickly lost or mentally misfiled. It’s the kind of message that is interpreted as mere lip-service unless you are seen to be taking active steps to foster a conducive environment.


Some action steps: See promoting a speak-up culture as an ongoing campaign rather than a once-off event; encourage a participative climate in which employees know that their insights on all matters are valued; get your managers and supervisors on board with your philosophy; introduce a regularly-used catch-phrase such as ‘no surprises’ to describe your expectation;  apply sound communication principles to your speak-up messaging (consider your target audiences, use multiple methods and vary them regularly); ensure that your policy on how to report suspected irregularities is up to date and covers all available avenues.

  1. They don’t know that it is their duty

It’s obvious to you – every employee has a duty to act with care and in good faith and must know that this includes bringing wrongdoing against the organisation to your attention. It’s not obvious to everyone else:


There are certain principles that underly an employment contract, such as the duty to act in good faith and the duty of care, but we err by assuming our employees are aware of these often-unwritten obligations. Employment contracts focus more on the rewards and rights an employee will enjoy than on their reciprocal obligations. Job-related duties and compliance expectations are likely to be clearly set out, with little attention to the general legal and ethical obligations that underpin the employment relationship.


Some action steps: Make unwritten expectations and ethical duties explicit in your ethics codes and related policies; bring these expectations to front of mind through your induction process; address ethical duty obligations during ethics training, which should be compulsory; keep them front of mind by regularly breathing new life into your communication campaigns; promote understanding of the concept of ‘derivative misconduct’ – the offence that arises when an employee with knowledge of wrongdoing towards their employer fails to disclose this to their employer.

  1. They don’t know how to

We know that there are many ways for our employees to speak up. After all we have an open-door policy, there is HR they can turn to and there is the ethics hotline, amongst other options. If they are really interested surely they can easily find that information in a policy or on a noticeboard, or just ask someone? Yes, but…


You may be right, but despite this one continues to find low levels of awareness of the methods for raising a flag amongst employees. Information that we don’t need at the time we receive it is easily forgotten. Chances are that many employees have come and gone since you last held a whistleblowing induction talk, or that your speak-up posters have been the same for so long that people have stopped noticing them (or they were taken down and never replaced). If your employees are like most others, it doesn’t occur to many of them to trawl thought a policy manual.


Some action steps: Regularly update your communication vehicles and messages so that they don’t become stale; make the information easily accessible (desktop widgets, pay-slip messages and the like); regularly change and rotate posters; task internal audit with ensuring that speak-up procedures are displayed at all locations as part of their site visits; recap the available options at employee consultative forums; publish them in and on employee communication platforms.

  1. Only saying what they think you want to hear is a habit learned early on

We don’t like to think that our employees only tell us what they think we want to hear, and it doesn’t occur to us that their previous experience of authority figures influences how they see us.


From an early age we work out that making our parents and teachers happy is a good strategy, and that this often requires telling them what they want to hear! We get punished or rewarded depending on whether our words and deeds fail or match their expectations. This early experience can pervade all our relationships with authority figures, even as adults. In the workplace, we are in an asymmetrical power relationship with our supervisors and managers, just like we were as children with our parents. Even if you have created what you think is an open-door environment, there’s a good chance your employees have a strong aversion to being the bearers of bad news.


Some action steps: Recognise that however easy to speak to you like to think you are, you have to make a concerted effort to be seen differently to the other authority figures your employees have encountered in their lives; implementing the suggested actions listed in this article, especially under reasons 1, 2 and 5 in this article will support your effort.

  1. They don’t trust you to receive and handle the information appropriately

We like to see ourselves as consistently rational and responsible people and imagine that our employees also see us this way. They may not:


Managers, being human, vary in the levels of emotional expressiveness they display at work. Some tend to be more consistent in general demeanour and others more variable and unpredictable. It’s the ability to listen calmly and respond in a carefully considered way when receiving adverse information that makes some leaders much easier to talk to than others. In fact, your emotional response to a disclosure, even if not directed at the disclosing employee, can be experienced by them as an adverse consequence that will deter future reporting.


Some action steps: Respond with measured calm to any disclosures your employees make that constitute ‘bearing bad news’; give them a positive experience of speaking up about small things, this increases the likelihood that they will take the risk of raising trickier topics; assure a disclosing employee that you will give careful thought and consideration to any next steps and obtain expert support where appropriate; if feasible, advise them of your possible next steps and get their buy-in.

  1. They are fearful of their identity being revealed and of being labelled a snitch

We assume that our employees know that they can trust us not to reveal their role in bringing potential wrongdoing to our attention, and that we will protect their identities. But do they trust you?


Every employee understands that if they provide credible information regarding a threat to the organisation, that a responsible manager must take action – usually by escalating the report and involving others in determining the optimum way forward. Once the employee imparts their information to you, they lose control over what happens and who gets to know what next. A strong need to belong is a basic human survival instinct and your employee faces the threat of social ostracization by their community of peers if they are seen as a snitch. The prospect of social isolation in the workplace is a significant deterrent against speaking up.


Some action steps: Carefully limit the people who know the identity of a whistleblower; ensure that all understand their obligations in terms of Protected Disclosures legislation to protect the identity of a whistleblower (and that a breach of its regulations may result in disciplinary action); encourage your employees to use the confidential hotline if they fear exposure; reassure them that the hotline can be trusted.

  1. They don’t believe you will take action on the matter

We know that we spend part of every day addressing matters raised by our employees, so there is no reason for them to believe that we will not treat a disclosure seriously and take appropriate action. On the contrary:


International studies identify this as one of the main reasons that people don’t speak up: they think they will be wasting their breath. It may be that they have tried to raise tricky matters with you previously and believe they have been brushed off. It may be that their colleagues have told them that they have tried to raise this or other issues previously but that there was no response to the disclosures.


Some action steps: Even when you are not able to disclose to a reporting employee the full details of an ongoing or completed investigation into their disclosure, the revised Protected Disclosures Act requires that you keep the employee informed regularly as to whether an investigation is ongoing and of when it has been completed. Read our previous article, A Quick Guide to Applying the Duty to Inform Provisions of the Amended Protected Disclosures Act, for more insights and suggestions. Ensure that allegations are investigated adequately and engage professional investigators who can advise you on how to verify or refute claims without exposing the whistleblower. Let your employees know if your whistleblowing report handling is subject to an annual audit, this will give them assurance. Implement a report management system that captures disclosures from all avenues for ease of progress tracking and auditing.

  1. They think you are already aware of the matter and choosing to turn a blind eye

We believe our employees have confidence in our integrity and that it wouldn’t occur to them that we were turning a blind eye to wrongdoing or in cahoots with wrongdoers. It may not be the case:


You cannot make this assumption. Firstly, many people harbour an inherent mistrust of authority figures that may have nothing to do with how you specifically conduct yourself. As a manager you are unlikely to spend a whole lot of time explaining your actions to your subordinates, which means that there will have been past misinterpretations of your intentions and actions. There’s also a chance that they have assumed that if something is obvious to them then it should be obvious to you to.


Some action steps: Make sure that each of the people who report to you have the opportunity of regular, unrushed one-on-one time with you, during which you ask general, open-ended questions regarding any concerns they may like to discuss with you; consider involving all levels of employees in risk assessment processes, as this might serve as a platform for further discussion; act with integrity in all things and ensure your employees know what you stand for; actively encourage use of the confidential reporting system.

  1. They’ve been warned against it, from those within or unrelated to your business

It may not have occurred to you that those involved in wrong-doing against you, including third parties, may have warned your employees against revealing what they know.


Some fear of reprisal may be disproportionate to the matter at hand. It develops over time through our exposure to both subtle messages (‘don’t rock the boat) and scary ones: dramatic TV visuals of whistleblowers sharing their information in back-lit interviews with digitally-disguised voices, stories of whistleblowers going into hiding or sending their families away to safety after receiving death threats.


In other instances, fear may be well-founded, especially in some countries. For example, where crime syndicates have infiltrated the workplace, or offending colleagues are known to carry weapons or have a history of violent behaviour, employees may have good reason to feel intimidated and fear physical harm if exposed as a source of information. This will be even more so if they use public transport and live in areas with poor levels of policing and personal security.


Some action steps: Ensure that you provide the option of reporting via an anonymous hotline; promote the credibility of the hotline service provider to employees; engage professional investigators who can assess the level of risk to your employees; maintain anonymity of confidential whistleblowers who speak up to you directly.

  1. They fear career-impacting retaliation and its potential consequences

You believe that you would welcome rather than reprimand an employee who drew your attention to a threat to the business. In fact, you would be resentful and feel betrayed if there was something you needed to know but your employees’ chose to keep it from you. It would not occur to you to punish someone for speaking up. 


With so much at stake, why would your employees risk their futures and trust you to protect them from adverse consequences for speaking up? There are many forms that retaliation can take and many directions it can come from. Unless you have full line of sight over every interaction your employees are involved in, you cannot be sure that they do not experience retaliation.


It is not uncommon to hear that first-line supervisors, the people who hold such control over the quality of employee’s day to day work environment, have warned them off revealing ‘team secrets’ and have implied that they have ways of finding out the identity of anonymous whistleblowers.


Just the threat of retaliation for speaking up, even one issued by someone low in the supervisory structure, is sufficient to silence many employees. For if there is one thing that carries more weight than a sense of obligation to their employer, it’s your employees’ obligation to provide for their families. In an environment of high unemployment this can be an even bigger deterrent, as it is common for those who do have jobs to shoulder an enormous burden of dependency for their extended family. Even those who have highly marketable skills have reason to be fearful – they care about their work status and, like all human beings, fear losing control over their futures.


Some action steps: Ensure that everyone knows that retaliation for well-intended speaking up is unacceptable and against the law; give supervisors and managers anti-retaliation awareness education; make explicit the position that retaliation as defined in the protected disclosures legislation is unacceptable; identify retaliation as a matter to report via your hotline; put anti-retaliation on the agenda at your workplace consultative forums.



There are of course many other action steps that you can take to promote a culture of speaking-up and whistleblowing but we hope that the structured approach and suggestions included in this article serve as a platform for your own planning processes.


As you will have concluded, many of the reasons listed co-exist and have a compounding effect that is of such magnitude that one may wonder why people speak up at all. Fortunately they do, and as Dale Horne, a Director of South Africa’s largest independent ethics hotline service Whistle Blowers explains, the number of credible reports received per employer is higher where the deterring reasons are understood and the proposed responses are implemented.


If you are a Whistle Blowers client, speak to Dale (dale@whistleblowing.co.za) about the awareness training and communication materials that Whistle Blowers can provide in support of your speak-up campaign. If not, contact us for more information on the services we offer.


This article was written for Whistle Blowers by Penny Milner-Smyth of Ethicalways.

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