This article was written by Jenny Robinson, BSB Senior Behavioural Scientist, Dr. Jesal Sheth, BSB Policy Associate and Behavioural Scientist, and Yuwei Zhang, BSB Data Scientist.
This is the second of two pieces highlighting findings from the 2019 BSB Employee Survey on speaking up. Read the first piece, The Sound of Silence.
It is tempting, when we think of speaking up about concerns at work, to recall widely publicised examples of whistleblowing: speaking out externally in the hope and expectation of effecting a change in course or behaviour. However, data from the 2019 BSB Survey tells us that the single most used channel for speaking up is the respondent’s line manager. Other channels offered to respondents included senior management, human resources departments (HR), speak-up contact/guardians, trade union reps, other colleagues, internal hotlines, external third-party support, mailboxes or apps. We found that whether employees used just one channel or multiple channels to raise their concerns, around 80% of them spoke up to their line manager. This aligns with previous research that emphasises the importance of managers both as sources of behavioural cues and as important engineers of a culture of psychological safety (Detert & Burris (2007); Financial Conduct Authority (2020)).
Given the frequency of line-managerial interaction as a channel for raising concerns, it is unfortunate that fewer than half (48%) of people who raised their concerns in this way were satisfied with their experience, with around a third expressing dissatisfaction. This represents an opportunity for firms: building line managerial capability to be a first point of contact for employees to raise concerns can help create a culture of psychological safety within organisations.
While line managers are undoubtedly important, they are not the only channel available, or used, by employees who want to give voice to their concerns. However, the choice of channel is not random: it appears to be influenced by the type of concern that the employee wishes to raise. For example, among our respondents, the HR channel was used to raise around 10% of all concerns, but not to the same extent across all concern types. Only 2% of concerns related to workload were raised to HR, whereas around a quarter of all personal concerns (bullying, discrimination and sexual harassment) and one in six concerns related to performance management were raised through the HR channel.
The HR channel is also less likely to be the only one used to raise a concern. Only 3% of concerns that were raised through a single channel were raised through HR. This implies that when employees go to HR, they are more likely to do so as one of several channels rather than as a first or only port of call. There are many reasons why HR might be used more frequently as a secondary channel. In many organisations, specific types of concern (e.g. bullying or sexual harassment) may be addressed via formalised HR-led procedures, so many concerns that are raised to line managers will naturally progress to HR. HR may be used as a single or first channel where the concerns raised directly might involve a line manager – for example, where employees have performance management or discrimination concerns. There are also some cases, in particular the case relating to personal concerns, where the employee’s requirement for anonymity or confidentiality may lead them to use HR as an uninvolved, internal interlocutor.
While we find that 46% of people who used only one channel to raise their concerns were satisfied, and 35% were dissatisfied, for those using three or more channels, this falls to only 30% being satisfied and 58% dissatisfied. This shows that people who use more channels tend to be less satisfied overall. Potential reasons for this may be dissatisfaction with their initial experience of speaking up (usually to a line manager) or may be because their concerns are more complex or potentially indeterminable, thereby leading to unresolved or unresolvable issues.
Our data highlights the importance of building line managerial capability as the first point of contact for many people wishing to raise concerns and as a major factor in how colleagues feel about their experience of speaking up. If we wish people to voice their concerns, they must be met with satisfactory responses. This may be even more challenging for managers in a virtual environment. We aim to support firms in this by identifying and sharing good practice on how to foster effective listening, and understand what elements of treatment, outcome and process make a positive difference in encouraging people to speak up and, when they do, in the way that they are responded to.
Detert, J. R., & Burris, E. R. 2007. Leadership behavior and employee voice: Is the door really open? Academy of Management Journal, 50: 869-884
Financial Conduct Authority. Psychological Safety. Available at: https://www.fca.org.uk/culture-and-governance/psychological-safety. Retrieved 11th June 2020.
See the BSB Assessment Results 2019.