Driving Speak-up Culture

By Doriana Vintila, Ombuds - OMV Petrom S.A.

We can all agree that speak up culture is an essential characteristic of a people-oriented inclusive organization. Forbes said it, and I think they said it well in a very insightful article on the benefits of creating a speak-up culture at work [1]. Undoubtedly, most companies have evolved from the initial purpose of speak-up, which was to protect them from wrongdoings, and moved towards making people feel respected, empowered and safe. A work environment where members of the staff, irrelevant of their position, feel safe bringing their ideas to work every day will grow and flourish. Speaking up is very much about learning and improving, becoming a better version of what was yesterday – both individually and collectively.

But having a speak-up culture is more than just having policies and hotlines in place. People often refrain from speaking their minds for a variety of reasons that have nothing to do with the availability of tools do so, or where those tools are placed (with HR, Compliance, the Ombuds etc). I’ve more than once heard people say that they won’t criticize a coworker because they don’t want to hurt their feelings or put their friendship at risk. However, isn’t holding back doing exactly that? That is where valuing a true speak-up culture comes into place: the belief that your suggestions, constructive criticism and openness will be perceived as an act of goodwill, both by colleagues and especially by management.

Leaders must show just as much as regular staff, maybe even more, that they are willing to learn. They should be prepared to adapt their approaches and seek out feedback, acknowledging where things could have been done better. If employees see management as apprehensive to respond to their suggestions, they’ll quickly conclude that management isn’t interested in what they have to say. Of course, not all suggestions can be put into place, but a reasonable amount should be at least considered if not followed through. Without clear engagement from management, confidence, and motivation to do and say the right thing will decrease, and employees may hesitate before making their voices heard.

"Speaking up is very much about learning and improving, becoming a better version of what was yesterday – both individually and collectively."

My belief is that the key to embedding speak-up into the organizational life is to have management buy-in, at all levels. Not only top management, but especially middle and lower management. This is how you encourage staff to speak their minds, without fear of retaliation and without worrying that nothing will be done about their concerns. In no way do I minimize the importance of having in place policies and reporting channels, then raising awareness and educating the workforce regularly – these are all prerequisites. But these can only bring you up to a point. If you want your organization to cross over that point (on a regular basis, not just on isolated events) you need to gain leadership support and have them walk the talk. I’ve worked almost a decade as an Ombuds practitioner and previously half a decade as a Compliance professional (a fleeting moment as compared to other colleagues’ experience), but at this moment I can humbly say that, from both perspectives, this is the easiest and the hardest thing to put into place, because it’s not about a handful of people participating, it’s about everybody!

How do you as an ombuds help to encourage and facilitate speak-up culture in your organizations?



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Comments on "Driving Speak-up Culture"

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Paulina Hernández - Thursday, April 20, 2023

Doriana, thank you for your interesting article about a speak-up culture in our organization, there was a time when I installed a mailbox for ideas, which allowed all the staff to provide comments and suggestions, some of which led to making important improvements.

ION ANGHEL - Tuesday, April 18, 2023

Thank you Doriana for sharing with us! When a speak up culture is in place, leaders and teams are comfortable discussing positive and negative behavior.

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