What do Organizations Need to Consider When Creating a "Culture of Speaking Up"

In a recent article CNNMoney.com article entitled "What BP was missing on Deepwater Horizon: a whistleblower", Eleanor Bloxham, CNN contributing writer and CEO of The Value Alliance and Corporate Governance Alliance wrote about factors that can affect an organization's culture with respect to its members ability and confort to speak up when something is wrong. She cites disparity between policies and reality with respect to BP/Deepwater Horizon and NASA/Challenger Incident and talks about the constant attention necessary with respect to keeping employees aware and comfortable. Bloxham writes:

The ability to ensure individuals voice safety concerns and that managers appropriately respond is a complex issue -- and one that is worthy of study. If it were simple, it would have been solved. But as Michael Griffin's statement outlines [Nasa/Challenger Incident], it is one requiring continuing attention. It goes beyond the engineering missteps and solving those issues. It is a human issue all organizations face and one all boards should examine and exert vigilance in overseeing.

What do Organizations Need to Consider to Create a "Culture of Speaking Up"?

  1. Organizational outsiders often feel more comfortable speaking up than those directly responsible for making decisions.
  2. The smaller the environment and community, the less likely there will be a whistleblower.
  3. Codes of Ethics and Professional Standards are vital.
  4. Employees not only need to be reminded of their responsibility to come forward but also be assured that they are protected from retaliation.

Bloxam cites the Codes of Ethics for engineering organizations, including that of AIChE:

However, individuals must achieve a sense of allegiance to those codes and professional standards that is greater than the pressure for allegiance to the group in which they work. For example, as a general matter, engineering organizations have codes of ethics. The Code of Ethics for the members of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers states that they shall "Hold paramount the safety, health and welfare of the public and protect the environment in performance of their professional duties".

You can read the full article here. Are you an AIChE member? Take the time to become more familiar with our Code of Ethics. It's an easy-to-remember URL: http://www.aiche.org/code


Additional Ethics-Related Resources:

Whistle Image: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Pea_Whistle.jpg


I think this is a really great and really timely article. In school they spent a bit of time in several courses talking about ethics. We read many case studies and discussed them which I think was helpful. Unfortunately, if doing the right thing will cost you your job in this economy and you have mouths to feed... ethics is never black and white and there are always other factors and dependant variables. It is great that I can refer to my organization's code of ethics (and I have cited it at work) to add credibility to an unpopular stance.

Wishnick's picture

I agree with the comment above that you often have several competing responsibilities that shape what a ethical decision is, and when one is faced with loosing your job and speaking up, I do not think there is any ethical obligation to the direction taker to speak up. It would be nice, but that is on them to go above and beyond what business ethics require in my humble opinion. In my opinion the management, and ultimately the CEO is responsible for knowing and shaping the culture. however, I think each person does have a basic fiduciary duty, but that changes with the context. As long as the engineer presented the correct information it is, then int he end, on the risk return people. What complicates everything often is that running a business does carry with it a fiduciary duty to make money, so balancing that and the environment and the culture can not be easy. But my personal thought is that nobody made these people take on the roles of CEO or other highly lucrative roles, and they should be held accountable. It seems natural that they get the financial upside, they should be accountable for the same downside in both social (jail time) and financial terms.

RC Ramaswamy's picture

The open culture - the culture of speaking up is very desirable. There may be many cases, where the individuals working on a small thing out of a big scheme of a project may not even notice the fault in the big scheme. And the senior higher ups may not get to the details of the project and so they wont even aware of such fault/violations. The middle management, project coordinator, leaders should be vigilant to catch this and if they are not vigilant enough they may even miss that. In such casesthe business processes such as, periodic safety review, periodic blue sky evaluation, brainstroming should be conducted to catch such issues, Once it is found, I think most of the corporates would like to rectify as no one would like to face huge penalty like what BP is facing now. There are companies, atleast have heard case stories, where folks tried to hide their mistakes etc and have put the lifes of a few folks to risk. It is a very scary thought. Individual ethic consciousness will help the community in general.

Agreed - there should be some kind of checks and balances to not only enforce ethical guidelines but also eliminate the non-malicious possibility of oversights and forgetfulness.

Ahra Kwon's picture

Building a culture of speaking up is not as easy as it seems. Previous comments state the awareness and comfort level to be important in building this culutre but what about trying to implement these suggestions in a plant in Southeast Asia where "speaking up" to their elders is considered disrespectful and simply wrong? The people are raised in a culture where a stringent social heirarchy exists. And the heirarchy is not a chosen way of life--it's just how the culture is defined. I'll use myself, for example. I grew up with a strong Korean background although I was born and raised in the States. The respect I hold for my elders and the mannerisms around my elders never changed. To this day, I cannot speak up to my bosses, my professors, etc. It's just how I grew up and it's always difficult when I want to say something--no matter how comfortable I am around these people.

jvasko's picture

Yes, cultural differences among people should definitely be taken into consideration in this process.

jvasko's picture

Thanks for the excellent comments on this post. There are some really good insights here. Despite the importance of creating a culture of transparency and making people comfortable about speaking up, FEAR is such a powerful thing. So many people are afraid to lose their jobs and just want to bury problems under the rug. This is how we get into trouble. Constant reinforcement is so necessary.

Agreed. When you make people decide between speaking up and the wellbeing of their family and dependents... there just isn't any good outcome. I wonder how many people utilize the Ethics Lines that some companies and organizations have - anyone have any ideas?