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Joanna Suvarna


Founder and Chief Kindness Officer

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Six steps to boosting psychological safety and building a more ethical workplace

Joanna Suvarna explores the actions you can take to create a welcoming environment that combats fears of retaliation and punishment.

In principle, most of us would likely advocate for people speaking up about unethical practises, misconduct, or injustice in the workplace – why wouldn’t we? I’m sure we would all like to think that we’d always speak up if we saw or experienced something that we didn’t feel was morally right or that we felt was unacceptable, for ourselves or for someone else.

Most of us also likely believe that we hold ourselves accountable for high ethical standards, at work and in life, ensuring our moral compass guides us and that we display care and respect for ourselves and for others, regardless of differences or differing views.

Yet, ethics and morals can be subjective  my values and north star are likely very different to yours.

We all view the world through very different lenses and that alone can be a source of conflict, misunderstanding, and inertia, which can lead to instances where we perhaps should have spoken up but didn’t, or where we spoke up and others wouldn’t have done. This presents a challenge to all HR professionals and leaders across the globe.

Differing lenses aside, the reality is that speaking up, even about the smaller issues at work, can be a far more difficult and isolating path to walk as an individual than walking the path of keeping quiet, fitting in with the crowd, and saying nothing at all. This seems counterintuitive given that speaking up is known to be vital for the long-term financial success and reputation of an organisation. 

So what encourages individuals to speak up at work?  

A Forbes article by Gaskell (2021) details multiple research findings to try to understand this question, and they found that: We’re likely to speak up if we’re confident that our ideas will have an impact on our organisation, and especially if we think they will have a positive outcome for ourselves and our team.

By contrast, silence is more common if we’re not confident enough to take interpersonal risks at work, or if we fear we’ll be shunned for speaking up”. 

We’re likely to speak up if we’re confident that our ideas will have a positive outcome for ourselves and our team.

An example of this type of shunning comes in the form of a true experience from my own grandmother, who sadly passed away in November. Very recently, I got to hear the full story about how she’d spoken up in the workplace around 40 years ago.

She was working in the cells of a police station and she’d been requested to falsify documentation to say that one of the ladies in custody had “fallen and hurt herself”, even though she knew that this wasn’t what had actually happened. My grandmother refused to be part of the cover up and, as a result, she was shunned and there was retaliation, ultimately forcing her to leave her employment.

40 years on it seems little has changed in many organisations across the globe. Speaking up is still not always welcomed, instead, it is “often met with punishment, with retaliation”, as Freyd puts it. This retaliation can come from individuals, from an organisation’s leadership, from other stakeholders  or even a combination of all three.

This is echoed in the latest research from the Institute of Business Ethics, who found that “a shocking two fifths of employees who spoke up about ethical misconduct say that they experienced retaliation as a result (43%)”. 

How psycholoigcal safety can protect you from retaliation

So this poses the challenge: how can we encourage individuals to speak up about the issues that matter at work when we know that so often there is retaliation and punishment?

As Freyd asserts, “The people that are brave and come forward and say, ‘There’s a problem here,’ should be cherished”. These are the people who truly care about the organisation, about doing the right thing and about the bigger picture. How do we shake the frame to ensure that our organisations cherish these individuals?

The people that are brave and come forward and say, ‘There’s a problem here,’ should be cherished.

I’d suggest that a big part of the solution here is to ensure that workplaces are psychologically safe. This was the number one dynamic identified in ensuring successful teams in Google’s own ‘Project Aristotle’ research, and the same terminology which was first introduced by Professor Amy Edmondson.

When psychological safety is embedded throughout an organisation, individuals feel safe to speak up, knowing that they will be listened to regardless of their job role or level, importantly, knowing that there won’t be any retaliation or punishment.

Unfortunately, in reality, this safety isn’t something that’s truly present in many organisations, and as Nottingham Business School’s Professor Helen Shipton states from the findings of joint research with CIPD: “Nearly three in ten employees report low psychological safety at work.”.

This poses a huge challenge, highlighting the perceived lack of the very psychological safety that individuals require in order to encourage them to speak up. 

To redress the balance, systemic change is needed. For true psychological safety to be felt by employees at all levels in organisations, it is vital to design processes, systems, and mechanisms that ensure active listening takes place and issues identified are acted upon – this will help create safer working environments and mitigate risk, both personal and organisational.

Six steps to creating psychologically safer cultures

Combining guidance from Yetunde Hofmann and Vivian Joynes in their respective articles, I’ve put together some tips as to how your organisation can take its first steps towards creating safer workplace cultures:

  1. Adopt a zero tolerance approach to unkindness in all its forms, including the retaliation and punishment of individuals who report issues.

  2. Minimise the risk of retaliation by tracking the progress of reporters post-raising concerns

  3. Take time to conduct thorough and detailed investigations if required – don’t just “sweep issues under the carpet”.

  4. Ensure that employees at all levels are adequately developed periodically in terms of what conduct is deemed to be acceptable and what isn’t creating robust decision-making frameworks. The ‘Speak Up Toolkit’ from the Institute of Business Ethics will help you with employee development, ensuring that individuals know how they can safely speak up at work.

  5. Adopt a culture that encourages reporting even if the issue seems trivial, creating an anonymous channel where people can ‘ask a question’ of HR or compliance teams to get advice prior to officially reporting or escalating.

  6. Clearly and frequently communicate at all levels about the importance of speaking up in order to protect each other, and also to protect the organisation and other stakeholders from reputational damage and financial loss.

As well as the above steps, Megan Reitz and John Higgins point out that we must also be aware that there are “​​blind spots hampering the success of voice efforts and interventions, and also traps we often fall into when speaking up and listening up.”. 

Creating true psychological safety is not easy, as the workplace is a microcosm of wider society, where we all come with our own stories, lenses, and approaches.

Global events over the past couple of years have shone a much needed spotlight on inequality, discrimination, unethical practices, and injustice in workplaces, and it’s the responsibility of each of us to ensure that this focus does not fade. 

Recent global events have shone a spotlight on inequality, discrimination, unethical practices, and injustice in workplaces, and it’s the responsibility of each of us to ensure that this focus does not fade. 

Every individual deserves to work in an organisation that is committed to providing a safe space where there is respect for difference, encouragement to speak up, and a duty of care shown to all. This commitment must not be fleeting and it must be owned by all employees, creating cultures of wellbeing, care, and respect for difference.

As HR expert Perry Timms puts it: “Psychological Safety goes beyond speaking up. It’s about the removal of an oppressive energy that not only subdues such important identification and actions around wrongdoings, but generally an air of negative energy that stifles togetherness, innovative thinking, learning, advances in improvements and adaptations.

A stagnation of all the vibrancy of a high-performing, safe and trusted place to work and be. Psychological Safety isn’t just right for human beings to feel safe, it’s for performance and learning to truly thrive.”

Interested in psychological safety? Read Is trust your top priority? If not, it should be’.

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Joanna Suvarna

Founder and Chief Kindness Officer

Read more from Joanna Suvarna

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