#Speak-up series 3 – Why coworkers do not speak up on ethical issues

Speaking up on topics of ethics and compliance is hard to do. Already speaking up when you disagree or have bad news can be difficult in organizations. It is even more difficult to speak up on sensitive ethics and compliance issues. Usually, we have not learned to say the unpleasant truth.

Already as children, we learn that aunt Betty gets hurt, if you tell her frankly that her new hairstyle is a disaster. You certainly do not tell cousin Mark that you think he is a cheat when he boasts about his clever «tax saving» strategies.

We have learned to lie. We have learned that candor about the unethical behavior of others (especially if they are more powerful as us) might ruin the relationship.

Furthermore, ethical problems are often not black or white, but grey. This makes it difficult to draw the line, which can make us more insecure.

Finally, people hesitate to rock the boat if they have the impression that nobody else seems to notice. This is known as the bystander effect – a social-psychological phenomenon that refers to the fact that if there are many bystanders in an emergency situation, the likelihood of one person intervening and taking action goes down. This is because everybody is expecting the others to react first (diffusion of responsibility) and nobody wants to stand out in the crowd. The effect is amplified if the situation is ambiguous and bystanders are unsure if an intervention is socially adequate. This is exactly what is often the case in situations where ethical judgments play a role. (For a great illustration and explanation of the bystander effect, watch this video with Philip Zimbardo and the Heroic Imagination Project).

Consequently, silence is contagious. You observe that nobody else is speaking up, so you do not do it yourself. That is why it is so important to create a corporate culture where speaking up is normal and where employees have seen others speak up without negative consequences.

Because it often does feel unpleasant to speak up, we come up with all kinds of rationalizations, why it is ok not to do it:

  • “It’s not a big deal.”
  • “I don’t have all the information.”
  • “This is someone else’s responsibility.”
  • “This must be the way these things are done (at our company, in this region, in our industry, etc.)”

In reality, this a sure sign that you should actually speak up.

A survey among European companies showed that only half of the people that observed ethics or compliance violations spoke up (Source: Daniel Johnson : Ethics at Work: 2015 Survey of Employees – Continental Europe)

We all know these fears are real and still there are often people who dare to speak up.

What do you think? Who are these people? What is different about them? Do they not have these fears? Are they maybe very brave heroes? Are they maybe in a more powerful position?

No.

People who do speak up on important concerns do this because they have spoken up before. The degree of fear, power or bravery play no important role. It is the practice that makes the difference!

Speaking up is an ability that can be trained like a muscle that gets bigger with exercise. Addressing sensitive issues is not something that comes natural to most of us. However, there are effective ways to do this without jeopardizing our career or our relationship with our boss.

How to prepare and conduct a speak-up conversation with confidence and courage will be the topic of the next and final part of this blog post series on speak-up.

Stay tuned and watch for the next episode of the speak-up series!
Prof.-Bettina-PalazzoAuthor: Dr. Bettina Palazzo
Professor at BSL

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