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  • Writer's pictureRoxanne Petraeus

5 Steps to Building a Speak Up Culture at Your Org

In this Article:

What is Speak Up Culture? Why is Speak Up Culture Important? How to Create a Speak Up Culture

When I was in the army, every commander I worked for said they had an “open door policy.” But only a handful of commanders actually demonstrated that they truly wanted to hear about issues that were happening in their organization.

One of the most important things an organization, be it a military unit or a business, can do is encourage a culture where everyone feels comfortable speaking up.

Recently, we’ve written a lot about the importance of feedback and creating a feedback culture, which includes making dedicated time for feedback (for us, that’s Feedback Fridays). Today we’re going to cover a new but related topic known as “Speak Up Culture.”

What is Speak Up Culture?

You’ve got a “speak up” culture when you have a safe space for feedback where people feel comfortable speaking up about both challenges/disruptions and opportunities for improvement or innovation. This includes reporting harassment and issues that may be hindering productivity. Smaller examples are submitting ideas for areas that the company can improve. Larger, more significant examples could be raising a potential concern about an ethics violation to your company’s compliance team.

Speak up culture has a critical place in DEI work and in ethics. An inclusive company seeks to make sure everyone at work has a strong sense of belonging, value, and respect from the company and their peers. Encouraging everyone to share their thoughts and speaking up when things aren’t working is an easy way to show your team that you care about inclusion. Speak up culture is also crucial to having an ethical organization.

In other words, organizations that practice healthy speak up culture place make the effort to listen up, as well.

Why is Speak Up Culture Important?

The reality is, no matter how strong a company’s culture or intentions are, issues will occur. I wrote about this myself last year. On the higher end of the scale, up to 85% of women have reported that they have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace. According to the Ethics & Compliance Initiative’s 2021 Global Business Ethics Survey, 49% of US employees reported observing misconduct. Of the reported misconduct, 35% observed employee favoritism, 23% observed improper hiring practices, and 22% observed abusive behavior. Most of these stats have seen an increase in the past five years.

Given issues are inevitable, the best thing a company can do is create a culture where employees feel comfortable speaking up. This is especially important when weighing the fact that nearly 60% of all observed misconduct in the workplace is never reported. Making reporting easier, as well as educating and encouraging employees on reporting misconduct is a major step in the right direction.

How to Create a Speak Up Culture

There are many effective and simple steps you can take to begin building a culture where everyone’s ideas are welcomed and heard. The key here is modeling the type of behavior you want to encourage.

1. Actively make space for feedback

It takes a lot of courage for an employee to pull aside a senior leader and say, “hey, do you have a minute?” Instead of hoping an employee will have the courage to initiate that conversation, create dedicated space for bilateral conversations between employees and their managers. For example, we use the concept of Feedback Fridays as a way to make intentional space for these kinds of conversations to happen.

2. Show that your organization takes this seriously

Some workers report not speaking up in their workplace due to a fear of not being heard or believed, and therefore doubt that sticking their neck out will change anything. In fact, while most employees understand what they’re supposed to do when witnessing misconduct, only 54% of employees feel that reporting is the right thing to do given the perceived impact reporting could have on their team’s morale or performance. As a leader, it’s your role to show employees that speaking up is not only right, but beneficial.

When things don’t go well, be transparent with your team about what’s going wrong, what mistakes you made, what you learned from the process, and where you hope to go from here. Of course, there are some caveats to this that require confidentiality, but if you can, be open about what’s not going well, and why.

Beyond mistakes and lessons learned, it’s on you to model a solution-oriented mindset. Propose your own outside-the-box ideas to show that radical notions won’t be penalized. Be sure to respond to new ideas with enthusiasm, too.

3. Set clear expectations

Be clear on what type of behaviors are not tolerated at your workplace. A prime example of this is harassment and discrimination of any kind. And be clear about the consequences when these rules are broken. It’s critical – and overall more convenient – to includes these expectations during key training sessions, like onboarding, Code of Conduct training, or your annual Harassment Prevention training, for example.

Policies you should have, if you don’t have already:

  • Code of Conduct (which can contain many of the policies listed here)

  • Anti-Harassment/Discrimination

  • PTO, Holidays, and Sick Leave

  • Dating

  • Social Media

  • Data Security

4. Train on how and where to speak up

What tools and avenues for reporting does your organization have, and how accessible are these options for your employees? Misconduct never happens in a vacuum, and people often feel ambiguity about what to report as well as when and how to report it. By providing this information in a training setting (like during your Code of Conduct training), you can give your team the tools and confidence to speak up when misconduct occurs.

Your training should include:

  • The tools you have for reporting (e.g. web portals, specific emails, forms, etc.)

  • Specific contact information for people to report to, like an HR rep, Ombudsman, etc.

  • What behavior or observations should be reported, and when

  • What happens after reporting misconduct.

And, if your training has excellent, inclusive content with relevant examples, your teams will feel that much more confident in reporting to the right channels at the right time. Courses like Ethena’s Harassment Prevention and Anti-Bribery & Corruption training delineate what counts as reportable conduct (and allows for regular refresher lessons, to keep resources top-of-mind).

5. Look for data and patterns

Another key to building a speak up culture is to listen up. This involves tracking data and reports and keeping tabs on how feedback is going. It’s important to show that you’re actually paying attention to what your team is sharing with you. As mentioned before, follow up on reports!

Train your managers and supervisors to be experts in feedback and listening. Remember, leadership sets the standard for culture! And finally, hold everyone accountable, especially your leadership teams.


Just like with creating a feedback culture, building a speak up culture in your workplace takes a few simple steps. This will help you in the long run. When everyone’s ideas are welcomed, companies thrive. Looking for a training solution that provides useful tips and resources for recognizing and reporting misconduct in the workplace? Check out Ethena's Courses page to learn more and try a sample of our training today!

Stats to prove it.

Latham & Watkins wrote about our unique and effective approach to harassment prevention. It’s less boring than it sounds!

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A company using Ethena could reasonably expect to face fewer enforcement actions and to be less vulnerable to liability for sexual harassment."

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