Employee experience: how to give employees a ‘safe space’ to speak outby
Creating a psychologically safe space for employees to speak out about harassment at work is crucial if you want an inclusive organisation. One way HR teams can do this is to implement the CARE model.
Following a year of remote working, it’s looking increasingly likely that more organisations will embrace a hybrid model of working for the foreseeable future, where employees work remotely for at least some of the time. Unfortunately, this means that there will be increased opportunities for bullying and harassment to go undetected. Organisations have long been aware that bullying and harassment can have devastating consequences, not only for the individual involved but, if left unchecked, for the organisation as a whole, as it damages the engagement of those who witness it and their wider teams.
Many organisations rush though a ‘speak out’ policy in response to a bullying incident without fully engaging their employees in the process.
Despite introducing whistleblowing measures and policies of zero tolerance of bullying, research shows that 7% of workers are still not reporting being bullied in the workplace. The main reason for this is fear – fear of being labeled, that it will affect future career opportunities and of being seen to be weak.
So, what should organisations be doing to ensure employees who themselves suffer, or witness bullying feel they can speak out? Essentially, organisations need to model an open and transparent approach to their commitment to zero tolerance of bullying so employees can trust that if they speak out they need not fear reprisal, retaliation or making the situation worse for themselves by alienating them from their colleagues.
Creating a psychologically safe environment is not easy, but the CARE model gives organisations practical guidance on how this can be achieved, so they can demonstrate their commitment, and action, when employees speak out.
The CARE model is based on four key principles: commitment, action, response, evaluation.
A robust policy on speaking out is just the first step, it must also be clear on responsibilities and who is accountable for each stage once a complaint has been made.
This can only be achieved by engaging the workforce when designing the ‘speak out’ policy. Get first-hand experiences of the challenges faced when taking that bold step to raise a complaint. This engagement will show that your organisation is dedicated and committed to creating a bully-free workplace and that, when incidents are reported, they are taken seriously and acted upon.
It’s critical to offer training for those with responsibilities within the policy on how to review complaints, how to speak to people, how to investigate and how to identify outcomes. You’ll also need to train all employees on the policy and what it means for everyone in the organisation. Making everyone aware of the policy, the process and the organisation’s commitment is needed to create the safe space for people to speak out.
Actions speak louder than words. To create a safe space for people to speak out, you need to ensure that objective and independent processes are in place. There should be a dedicated number for people to call – confidentiality being key – and an independent body to receive and assess reports. All of this forms part of the required actions to implement your speak out policy.
You may opt for creating an internal team to receive calls, or you may consider appointing an external provider – either option must ensure that you provide a confidential and independent reporting mechanism for employees. You need to ensure that the operators, those receiving the reports, are competent and trained in having difficult conversations; remember these are people who are in a highly emotional state, potentially subjected to prolonged bouts of bullying or discrimination, so sensitivity and high interviewing skills are essential.
Each report will need to be carefully ‘triaged’, to ensure that the appropriate route to resolution is taken. It may initially be considered a bullying or discrimination complaint but, upon careful examination and assessment, it may be more relevant to a grievance, or performance, type approach. For investigations, you need to ensure they are trained, skilled and competent to undertake investigations that are likely to be complex and emotional.
Your organisation’s response to reports is key in its success. The financial impact of failing to act, or not acting appropriately, when reports are raised can be extremely high, such as in a recent Australian case.
When receiving a report, and having conducted your triage, you need to respond, and respond in a timely manner. This response is another key factor in demonstrating your organisation’s commitment and the success of your speak out process.
If an investigation is required, first contact with the reporter should be swift and detailed, getting as much information as possible and providing the support necessary for them, such as occupation health, employee assistance programmes, etc. Your investigation should be thorough, objective, and fair, gathering all the necessary evidence and ensuring that your outcomes are balanced and reasonable.
Regular updates will help to prove to the reporter that you have listened and are taking their complaint seriously, so keep in contact and keep them updated.
On completion, make sure that you provide the reporter with an update. You will need to ensure that your response does not breach confidentiality and data protection and privacy laws, but even if it is just to say you have completed your investigation and progressing appropriately, it will reassure them that you are taking them seriously.
Like any good process, you should constantly evaluate your performance and your response, so that you can review and improve as you progress. Consider introducing a voluntary survey for each reporter at the conclusion, totally confidential but designed to get feedback from the ‘service user’ perspective. This will help you understand what works well, what doesn’t and how you can improve your process.
Remember to share your success. This is a difficult area, as confidentiality is key to the success of any speak out policy, but a high-level, strategic, publishing of statistics can also be extremely valuable for the workforce – i.e. how many cases were received, what action was taken, survey results of satisfaction; but don’t just tell the ‘good news’, share the bad too. Using a ‘you said, we did’ approach reinforces your commitment and helps to build employee confidence to speak out.
Finally, a word of warning, many organisations rush though a ‘speak out’ policy in response to a bullying incident without fully engaging their employees in the process – a course of action doomed to failure. Central to creating a bully-free zone, a psychologically safe workplace, and a workplace free from discrimination and harassment, is understanding what is holding employees back from coming forward.
Achieve that and deploy this simple CARE model, and your employees can all feel safer to speak out, in the knowledge that organisations will ‘listen up’.
Interested in this topic? Read How to make it easier for people to speak up.