How to Encourage Employees to Speak Up When They See Wrongdoing
Companies continue to rely on compliance tools such as codes of conduct and audits to get employees to report wrongdoing that they witness. But on their own, they are ineffective. Based on decades of behavioral science research and 30 years observing leaders, the author developed a model that offers seven interconnected strategies to nudge people to speak up.
More than 50 years after the term “bystander effect” was coined, many of us still witness workplace wrongdoing yet stay stubbornly silent. In motivating employees to speak up, most organizations still rely on traditional compliance-based tools such as codes of conduct, training, and audits. This approach has simply failed — only an estimated 1.4% of employees blow the whistle. Current strategies remain ineffective and are often counterproductive.
This matters because organizational silence perpetuates white-collar crime: It continues to rise despite companies investing millions in misconduct prevention. Scandals have slashed market valuations and ravaged the reputations of Boeing, BP, Barings, and many others.
The leading cause of silence is fear of repercussions. One study showed that 82% of whistleblowers suffered harassment, 60% lost their jobs, 17% lost homes, and 10% attempted suicide. Other causes include our unconscious need for belonging, a preference for the status quo, and willful blindness.
How can organizations motivate employees to speak up and respond to them effectively? To examine this dilemma, I conducted a randomized controlled experiment, which tested different types of messages with 923 employees. My findings point towards a blended solution to reframe current strategies — one that’s rooted in behavioral science.
What Companies Often Do Wrong
Before delving into the solution, we need to understand three common mistakes or assumptions that companies make in combating misconduct.
The wrong tools. Organizations over rely on a narrow set of compliance and control tools to prevent wrongdoing and encourage its disclosure. How effective were codes of conduct, training, or audits when Volkswagen falsified the emissions of its diesel cars? Or safety training and testing when Ford launched the Pinto with a fuel-tank design flaw, saving $137 million but costing dozens of lives? The answer: Not very. Few spoke out. Why? Because sanctioning systems distort our thought process from doing the right thing. When rewards such as promotions, perks, or pay raises are threatened, self-preservation creeps in, and we use a business lens, not a moral lens, to decide what to do.
The wrong communication triggers. When companies design compliance policies and codes of conduct, they hope they will trigger our sense of duty and moral responsibility to speak up if we see bad behavior. But they don’t inspire many people to speak up. For example, an independent longitudinal analysis concluded that codes of conduct are “insufficient to guide employee behavior … tension-provoking when implemented across cultures … inward-looking … and dependent on effective communications.”
In my research, respondents were exposed to a hypothetical situation where a senior executive bullied a junior employee to accelerate launch of a new drug, despite incomplete testing. The emotion triggered was not a feeling of responsibility to speak up, but anger at the offending manager — by a factor of four. But while 91% of respondents indicated they intended to report the incident, only 9% took action, and most associated speaking up not with responsibility but with the courage to report their superiors. Bystanders justify their inaction in what psychologists call diffusion of responsibility: the assumption others will intervene. The bigger the group, the bigger the assumption, and the bigger the problem.
The wrong assumptions about employee types. Assuming that certain populations or personality types — e.g., extroverts, optimists, or leaders — are predisposed to speak up is incorrect. Behavioral science shows that men are no more likely to blow the whistle than women, and extroverts no more likely than introverts, regardless of industry or occupation. There is no magic gender, disposition, age or personality. Anyone can speak up.
An Integrated Solution
Given that codes of conduct, training, and audits alone don’t suffice in getting people to speak up when they witness improper behavior, other steps must be taken. Risk and compliance departments should engage with communications departments, and compliance-based tools must be supplemented with emotion-based triggers.
Based on decades of behavioral science research and 30 years observing leaders, I’ve developed my integrated REFRAME model, which offers seven interconnected strategies to nudge people to speak up. This solution supplements traditional compliance strategies, which appeal to logic, with communication strategies, which appeal to emotion. It emphasizes actions related to culture, critical thinking, courage, and conscience.
Managers can apply the model sequentially or cherry-pick tools and triggers. The best mix depends on a company’s culture, size, and systems.
1. Redesign reporting tools. Smart organizations separate the motivation to speak up from the management of issues raised — each of which has different objectives and thought processes.
Organizations must review and upgrade the suitability of existing reporting mechanisms. For example, consider investing in training employees to spot and appropriately respond to signs of misconduct that they witness as bystanders. People don’t always know how to respond: Is the wrongdoing frivolous or fraudulent, accidental or intentional? Such training programs at universities have successfully taught people how to identify situations that can lead to sexual assaults, which has reduced their incidence.
Managers should review zero-tolerance policies that unconsciously inhibit employees from admitting that they have done something wrong or fallen short (e.g., overbilled a customer or conducted a trial that produced disappointing results). Make reporting easy. Hotlines should be cyber-secure, external, anonymous, and accessible. These channels for disclosure should facilitate group reporting: My research indicates that most people prefer reporting misconduct with allies as opposed to reporting it alone.
When issues are raised directly with you, don’t blame the messenger. (People instinctively reject negative news. “The auto-immune response is to expel them” claims one whistle-blowing specialist.) Ask yourself how promptly, sensitively, and effectively you resolve any issues raised.
Of course, investing in reporting tools is redundant without an integrity-based culture.
2. Embed a culture of safety. Is toxic behavior in your team tolerated or not? Are questioning voices labeled misfits or heroes? Tolerance and tone from the top matters. Perceived organizational support and culture are among the biggest drivers of disclosure. Adopt non-judgmental dialogue to build employees’ confidence to use their voices.
Great bosses sense how teams feel and build relationships rather than rely on audits, rumors, or surveys to surface concerns. They hold regular sessions where they encourage employees to express their concerns. Great bosses also admit mistakes, which shows vulnerability and signals reassurance.
For high-stakes decisions, proactively seek debate and dissent or appoint a devil’s advocate. The quicker you create a call-out culture, the quicker critical thinking and challenge will become normal.
3. Frame with positive messages. How you frame messages greatly influences the likelihood that people will speak up. While emphasizing commercial consequences, the secret is to incorporate messages that appeal to self-interest, empathy, and inclusion. People respond differently, so vary a range of messages.
Position silence as “everyone’s problem” to communicate speaking up as a shared goal and collective choice, reinforcing the inclusivity of “in it together.”
You might also position decisions to report misconduct as “showing compassion” or “supporting others.” This promotes speaking up in situations where victims of bullying, harassment, or discrimination need support from colleagues. Research shows that empathy prompts disclosure and people are happier helping others than themselves.
Even self-interested employees would be motivated to speak up if they knew that working at companies involved in scandals would stigmatize them, affecting their pay down the road: A study by Harvard Business School’s Paul Healy and George Serafeim found that senior managers who left companies that had suffered a criminal scandal were paid nearly 4% less by their new employers than their peers.
4. Reward with non-monetary incentives. When workers escalate concerns, query practices, or highlight risks, do you groan or show appreciation? Whistleblower Sherron Watkins expected gratitude for signaling “warning signs of cultural rot” at Enron. Instead, she was isolated and ostracized, and some of her responsibilities were taken away from her. Deciding to take such actions is extremely difficult, even agonizing, and requires enormous courage. It deserves recognition, not rebuke.
When managers exhibit genuine gratitude, it can stimulate a bandwagon effect, encouraging others to speak up. While regulators offer financial inducements for serious misconduct, I don’t advise organizations to follow suit. Administering such programs is very complex, and they can undermine, rather than nurture, a culture of doing the right thing.
5. Amplify messenger voices. Opinion leaders and influencers can reinforce the acceptability of speaking up and accelerate momentum. After Rachael Denhollander was the first to publicly accuse Larry Nasser, the physician for the U.S. gymnastics team, of sexual abuse 265 gymnasts came forward. After actress Alyssa Milano invited her followers on Twitter to reply if they, too, had been sexually abused, thousands responded within hours.
There’s no particular type of person (in terms of gender, age, rank, or personality) who typically plays this role. Witness Greta Thunberg, a teenager with Asperger syndrome who is now a leading voice for combating climate change. Or activist, Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani advocate of female education and other human rights who won the Nobel Peace Prize. Accordingly, companies should cultivate champions of speaking up throughout their organizations. How? By positioning it as a priority and inviting volunteers to be part of an internal campaign that encourages people to speak up.
6. Motivate with stories of courage. When leaders or the media celebrate stories of ordinary people who do the right thing, it reduces employee fear of being labelled negatively. Accordingly, companies should highlight both employees who have had the courage to expose misconduct and external role models such as Jeffrey Wigand, the American executive who exposed the tobacco industry for mixing addictive chemicals with nicotine, or Harry Markopolos, the securities analyst who repeatedly warned the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission about Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme.
Communicating courage-based stories is a persuasion technique that “pre-suades” future behavior. Popularized by social psychologist Robert Cialdini, it acts subliminally, like advertising. For example, the more we hear a song, brand, or message, the more familiar it becomes, and the more we both remember and like it — a phenomenon called the “mere exposure effect.”
The UK National Rail’s safety campaign, which urged citizens to report suspicious activity, increased speaking up among the public by 90% in the first year.
7. Energize a conscience-based movement. Today, movements such as #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter are raising our social conscience and transforming attitudes toward speaking up. Brands are internalizing new norms, signaling commitment to fairness, equality, and justice. And the world is watching. Making a commitment public puts pressure on accountability. And consumer expectations are high. Ninety percent of consumers expect brands to put employees before profits, and 64% expect brands to prioritize inclusion strategies, according to research by Edelman, the global communications firm.
Organizations must continue to protect whistleblowers and victims, and to punish wrongdoers, regardless of their seniority. By adopting this integrated strategy, organizations can help reduce bystander silence with the right triggers, the right tools, and all types of voices.