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Employee Engagement and the ‘Speak Up’ Culture

Employee engagement has always had a clear purpose; to keep good people engaged with your company so they don’t leave, and to ensure those who do leave say good things about you.

Engaged and happy employees are also known to go above and beyond when it comes to the discretionary effort at work which impacts positively on the bottom line. So, employee engagement is certainly a ‘must have’.

I speak to a lot of businesses about their employee engagement strategies and how to provide a safe environment to have open conversations about general business initiatives, as well as issues related to inclusivity; for example, we talk a lot about facilitating internal steering groups for future female leaders, or Q&A’s about mental health and how to run these alongside general leadership sessions. So, I often speak about the benefits of engaged employees to clients and prospects.

But we are all missing something -does employee engagement go beyond simply engaging your people, and if used effectively, with consideration, could it help to establish a safe and inclusive working environment?

Ethical Systems is a collaboration of top researchers, most of which are faculty at leading business schools in the USA. They share the conviction (backed by research) that in the long run, good ethics is good business and they have some very interesting things to say about what they call the ‘speak up’ culture:

All organisations understand the value of feedback—but only some encourage opinions both positive and negative and lend an ear to self-styled ‘devil’s advocates’.

Employees who make concerns known help organisations thrive by identifying issues and providing opportunities to adapt, innovate, and avoid costly mistakes. This is especially true for ethical behaviours.

Employees who speak up when they observe misconduct help organisations reduce risk. The sooner they speak up, the sooner the organisation can take action to prevent potential issues from developing into major scandals and damaging headlines.

I recently read an article which really struck a chord with me. The author discusses harassment against women in the workplace and how for so long there was no safe platform on which to collectively talk about, and have the issue taken seriously – no protection from the perpetrators and no power given to the victims. She highlighted how business reputation and not rocking the boat have previously taken precedent; the people who witness keep their heads down to avoid being involved and although everyone knows, it’s just accepted as one of those things.  And so, the cycle can continue as the affected women quietly leave companies (and often whole industries) whilst new unsuspecting women join.

Ethical Systems state that there are two main reasons for victims of harassment in the workplace not speaking up; fear and futility. Fear that they won’t be listened to, believed or supported and that by speaking up they will derail their career and make the situation worse. And futility because does anyone care enough to do anything about it and will the hassle be worth the lack of action?

Workplace discrimination is (quite rightly) under the spotlight and the issues can no longer be ignored. It feels as if the tide is beginning to turn, not just for women, but everyone – especially those who are part of a minority group – but it’s going to be a process which requires bravery, commitment to change and a good deal of soul-searching by most businesses.

Personally, I feel very strongly about helping to build inclusive, safe, diverse working environments and as part of my role, I’m always looking for ways in which our technology can be used to support positive action. I was therefore particularly drawn to two of Ethical Systems suggestions for creating a ‘speak up’ culture:

Solicit Feedback – Be proactive about engaging employees. Ask them to consistently voice their concerns and show you are open to receiving feedback. Form petition teams and make airing opinions an integral part of the evaluative process of project development. Make sure to follow up on what has changed in response to their feedback.

Set an Example – Talk openly about ethical issues and highlight both positive and negative examples. This shows that ethical issues are a priority for your organisation and that you want to hear about them when they arise.

As with so many issues, it seems that open communication would play a significant part in finding a solution; creating safe working groups, having regular open discussions and creating wider lines of communication throughout your business not only creates engagement but gives an opportunity for you to reiterate behavioural expectations and invite feedback. In summary, employee engagement makes clear business sense  – and not just because engaged employees are good for the bottom line.

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