• Dennis Gentilin

Employee voice as a key compliance tool

Updated: Jan 27, 2018

This article was co-authored with Dr Mary Gentile from the Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia. It first appeared in the April-June 2017 issues of the Risk and Compliance Magazine. Click here to view that version.

It is now broadly recognised that even the best ‘formal systems’ of governance – compliance, regulation and other such artefacts – are far from foolproof. What’s more, no amount of refinement can address their inherent shortcomings. Therefore, it is paramount that we devote more attention to enhancing the ‘human systems’ of governance within our institutions.

A cornerstone of any robust human system is employee voice – people must feel that they can, and should, voice and enact their values. It is one of the most effective ways to supplement an organisation’s formal compliance mechanisms. By cultivating cultures where people have the skills and confidence to effectively use their voice, organisations are far more likely to become aware of and appropriately address wrongdoing in its formative stages, prior to a ‘whistleblower’ being required to lift the lid on a big scandal. The challenge is making this happen.

The conventional approach one takes when embarking on a ‘cultural’ journey is to spend an inordinate amount of time focusing on the role of leadership. This approach has a lot of merit. After all, doesn’t culture start from the top? Although we are not averse to this approach, we cannot neglect the responsibility of the follower. Any programme or training initiative that aims to increase the likelihood that people within an organisation will use their voice and enact values must equip them with the skills to do this effectively.

Typically, the training programmes that have been used to achieve this latter outcome cover the following territory: (i) provide a brief ‘history of philosophy’ that includes a description of the different moral theories; (ii) expose participants to a raft of case studies containing ethical dilemmas of the type they may encounter in the workplace; and (iii) with reference to the moral theories, facilitate a discussion that enables participants to determine what is the ‘right’ thing to do in these case studies. Then, after several hours of theoretical training, the participants re-enter the workplace supposedly better equipped to deal with the myriad ethical challenges that they will inevitably face.

Unfortunately, our experience tells us that this type of ‘learning’ does not necessarily prepare or equip people with the skills required to navigate situations where their values are challenged in the real world.

There are primarily two reasons for this. First of all, it does not deal with the countless contextual factors in the workplace that can cause us all to behave in uncharacteristic and at times unethical ways. Behavioural norms that seduce us to ‘follow the crowd’, subtle pressure from our superiors to push boundaries, relentless expectations to hit targets and ‘make the numbers’, and the list goes on. Secondly, when facing values conflict, our natural tendency as humans is to respond intuitively. We often fail to engage in the deep, rational deliberative thinking that traditional training programmes assume.

To address this, traditional training programmes must move beyond their primary, and at times only, focus – delivering learning of the intellectual kind. Instead, they must supplement this and begin delivering learning of the emotional and experiential kind. This can only be achieved if training programmes move beyond the ‘thinking’ and incorporate more ‘doing’. This, after all, is what ethics in the real world is all about – thinking and deliberation alone will not successfully address conduct that is at odds with an organisation’s values. For this to happen successfully, one must draw attention to the conduct and ensure it is rectified.

Therefore, in addition to having participants deliberate case studies (the ‘thinking’), training programmes should ask participants to script their response and ‘rehearse for action’ (the ‘doing’). Whom are they going to talk to? How will they approach them? What will they say? What arguments do they expect will be used to justify the conduct? How will they respond to these arguments? What is the outcome they are hoping to achieve? If this is not forthcoming, what will they do? Then, by creating a ‘laboratory’ in the classroom that attempts to replicate the conditions in the workroom, participants can rehearse their response and begin exercising their ‘moral muscle’, arguably the most important instrument in our ethical toolkit.

Although this approach to learning ensures we are equipping people with the skills required to use their voice, we would be naïve to think that it is a sure-fire way of fostering employee voice in our organisations. The perennial challenge facing any form of training programme is translating the learning into action. And more often than not, when training programmes fail to do this, it is not necessarily because they are deficient. The more likely outcome is that the organisational context is not supportive and acts as an impediment to putting the skills acquired into practice. Employee voice is no exception – there are myriad contextual factors that dictate how likely it is that voice becomes a feature of an organisation’s human system.

The ‘rehearsal for action’ approach outlined above does play a role in helping overcome the contextual barriers to voice. However, this can be augmented with other strategies so that in addition to helping people develop the skills and confidence to effectively use their voice, we also help to create the organisational context that is supportive of them when they do so. Obviously any intervention that does this successfully must recognise the pivotal role that leaders play in shaping context. It is the organisation’s leaders that often dictate whether an individual who voices and enacts values is respected, listened to and has their concerns appropriately addressed.

An often made assumption is that leaders who fail to cultivate this type of open and responsive culture tend to be authoritarian or volatile. To be sure, this does not help. But even the best intentioned leaders, who are publicly supportive of people using their voice can, in the most subtle ways, send a message that feedback, challenge and input are not welcomed. It is through the stories that are told and the behaviour that is observed that people learn how committed their organisation is to listening to their voice. What happened to that young analyst who spoke up and expressed their opinion? How did that boss respond the last time they were challenged? Why did nobody acknowledge or run with that brilliant idea that was raised at the last meeting? The challenge for all organisations is to behave in ways that create positive scripts to these stories.

And to make this happen, leaders must first of all also develop the skills that will enable them to effectively use their voice and challenge. More to the point, they must role model the expected behaviour. The obligations of followership never cease and arguably become more critical at the upper echelons of the organisational hierarchy – it is here where the stakes are so much higher. If a leader is unable to effectively shine a torch on wrongdoing at the highest levels, then the consequences for the organisation can be dire. And if the stories emanating from the highest levels of an organisation suggest that there is a dysfunctional dynamic where challenge, robust debate and constructive criticism is swiftly shut down, then this will do little to encourage others in the organisation to use their voice.

But in addition, leaders must develop the skills to listen and create environments where the so called ‘difficult conversations’ become part of the normal discourse. This is far more difficult to do than most of us appreciate. Leaders do not need to be authoritative or volatile to breed a culture of silence. Rather, even seemingly inconsequential actions can send a powerful message that challenge and feedback are not valued in an organisation. When a leader is, or appears to be, inaccessible, not fully present when they are accessible, or fails to appropriately respond when they are made aware of questionable conduct, they can unwittingly fuel stories that kill voice and foster silence.

Fortunately, just like employee voice, these are skills that can be developed. By employing the types of techniques described above – pre-scripting and rehearsing for action – leaders can enhance their capacity to not only listen, but also to respond in a way that provides the messenger with confidence that they are being heard and taken seriously. The most logical place for leaders to begin developing these skills is by practicing with their senior peers. Giving their peers permission to provide open and honest feedback is often the greatest challenge for leaders. Learning to assimilate this feedback in a non-judgemental way, rather than responding defensively or dismissively, is difficult, but it helps leaders develop the skills to listen to their employees’ voices more effectively.

There is no doubt that making employee voice a feature of any organisation requires considerable investment from leaders. But surely if we care about the ethics of our organisations, it is an investment worth making. At the end of the day, the values and principles that an organisation stands by are sustained by the people within it. Building the confidence, skill and organisational context to raise values-based issues effectively is an excellent way to create an ‘esprit de corps’ within your organisation, where people feel collectively responsible for nurturing their organisation’s values.

Ultimately leadership, in all its forms and at every level, so often involves expressing and enacting the less obvious or the more difficult perspectives. In organisations where leaders are able to do this effectively, the benefits will be far reaching.

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This article first appeared in the opinion section of the Australian Financial Review on the 28th November 2019. Click here to view the original version. For those of us who were hoping that there wou