“I have never understood why hospital managers don't crawl, on bended knee, from one end of their trust to the other, begging staff to tell them what's going on, what's wrong and what needs fixing,” says Roy Lilley, former UK National Health Service (NHS) Trust chairman in an article in The Guardian earlier this month. The article comes as a result of the whistleblower troubles that have been plaguing the NHS since the Mid-Staffs scandal in late 2010.
Lilley believes that the NHS hospital trusts say one thing and do another. He writes that “…they have policies, procedures, guidance and toolkits. The bureaucracy that stifles speaking up is fruitlessly employed in the task of encouraging speaking out.”
Though the article is focused specifically around the UK’s NHS, the same issues can be found at organisations of all sizes across the globe, where toxic cultures can undermine even the best policies and procedures.
The Plight of the Whistleblower
Lilley poignantly writes about the plight of the whistleblower—both of the courage it takes to report potentially serious violations committed by their colleagues, their bosses or senior management, and the emotional aftereffects of doing so. “To blow the whistle inevitably means suspension... It means seclusion, suspicion and colleagues put under huge pressure to take sides. The evidence shows that most whistleblowers lose their jobs,” he writes.
It’s no wonder that when the negative repercussions of whistleblowing in the workplace are so severe that employees don’t report. YouGov and charity organisation Public Concern at Work found that 22 percent of the 2,017 adults surveyed feared retaliation for whistleblowing. It’s this sort of fear that thwarts the very kind of information that can prevent a catastrophic scandal like the issues at Mid-Staffs.
The Problem with Managing Up
Lilley also brings up another important issue—that management may tend to pass up only good news to senior management and the board, while stifling bad news which only provides ripe ground for a whistleblowing case. He writes, “to manage up, you also have to manage down and choke off failure, bad practice and complaints. Hence a corrosive culture of bullying and fear becomes part of an organisation.”
This issue may be felt acutely by management in NHS hospitals, where, as a government-run organisation, politicians have a vested interest in performance. But nearly all organisations can fall into the same trap. Does the board know what is going on at an organisation? Do senior leaders know? Are real problems just being swept under the rug, or proactively dealt with by management?
Shifting the Culture
Organisations with negative cultures tend to create a toxic, and potentially unsafe, environment for employees and customers.
Lilley hopes that culture will shift within the NHS, even suggesting that “a national Whistleblowing Day might create a climate of collective courage and action.” He knows the road isn’t easy and that “laws, guidance and policies will not change the perils of whistleblowing. It takes organisations with courage to hold up a mirror, look at themselves and reflect on what they are missing if they don't ask.”
How to Create a “Speak Up” Culture—From the Top Down
So how do you create a proactive culture of ethics and compliance, from the top down? According to Mary Bennett, vice president of NAVEX Global’s Advisory Services team, taking the following five steps can make a significant difference:
- Communicate to your employees, managers and other key stakeholders (such as third parties) to ensure they understand their duty to report, and provide assurance against retaliation.
- Reinforce the message across multiple channels, including posters in break rooms, screen savers and other awareness-raising campaigns.
- Integrate your commitment to a speak-up culture into all aspects of employee life, from periodic policy reviews to informal discussions at team meetings.
- Train your stakeholders regularly to bring whistleblowing and anti-retaliation policies to life and ensure that everyone understands your policies.
- Review your programme regularly to ensure that your employees are reporting incidents through policy management software and that management is responding to these issues in an appropriate way.