Importance of Being an Ethical Leader

Creating a "Speak Up Culture" in the Workplace

Reporting Wrongdoing Enhances Workplace Ethics

I have previously blogged about the speak up culture, a phenomenon that broadly encourages employees to bring matters of concern to top management so that corrective action can be taken when warranted.

What is a Speak Up Culture?

Tanya Finnie addresses the issue in a LinkedIn post. She says: “speak up culture” refers to a healthy, supportive environment, where team members feel free to share their ideas, opinions and concerns, without fear of retaliation or penalty. Often people associate it with calling out toxic company culture or even an individual member of staff, however it can also refer to people feeling comfortable to express different ideas that have previously gone unexplored. To be successful, a speak-up culture should provide a safe space for people to speak up and speak out, where they can feel emboldened to point out both challenging areas and opportunities for new disruptions and innovations. 

Rather than waiting for employees to speak up, leaders should take the initiative and start a structured debate within the organization. It is important to give employees an opportunity to speak up and respond appreciatively when they do. Employees should never be retaliated against for speaking up about a truthful matter or one of great concern to the employee and organization.

If we assume that most employees want to work for an organization that has an ethical culture, then having a speak up culture is essential. Top managers should make employees feel comfortable in brining matters up in the open, seeking out support for their point of view, and explaining why the issue is of concern.


A whistleblowing hotline is a fundamental tool for fraud prevention, detection and reporting unethical issues. It plays a critical role in accountability and governance in organizations. In a survey by KPMG, 59% of respondents do not have a whistleblowing hotline in their organization The Public Sector accounted for 13% of respondents from organizations without a whistleblowing hotline − 66% of respondents without a whistleblowing hotline have observed unethical behavior and out of this, a low percentage of 37% reported the issue, mainly to a manager. Respondents in organizations with whistleblowing hotlines or channels available to external parties received more whistleblower reports. Speak up

In an academic article in Organization Science, the researchers state, “Voice, or employees’ upward expression of challenging but constructive concerns or ideas on work-related issues, can play a critical role in improving organizational effectiveness. Despite its importance, evidence suggests that many managers are often hesitant to solicit voice from their employees. … Voice is a distinctive behavior that involves escalation of opinions, ideas, or concerns by employees to their managers with the expectation that they would respond by making systemic changes in their teams.”

So how can leaders encourage their employees to speak up and share their ideas?

Supporting Employees

In a recent Harvard Business Review (HBR) article, the authors describe this problem well: “When employees share novel ideas and bring up concerns or problems, organizations innovate and perform better. Employees are often the first to see issues on the frontlines, so their input can really help managerial decision making. Yet, managers do not always promote employees’ ideas. In fact, they can even actively disregard employee concerns and act in ways that discourage employees from speaking up at all.”

Unfortunately, while the many benefits of speak-up culture are clear, many managers remain hesitant to seek input from their people and are even less likely to really listen when that input is provided. And while disregarding employee input can cause frustration and disengagement of some of your best people (even causing them to leave), actively discouraging employees from speaking up can have even more severe detrimental impacts on the long-term effectiveness of the

The speak-up culture is related to the cancel culture in that if employees contemplate speaking out, in today’s divisive environment it is crucial to consider whether they might be canceled for their actions. Even though the points they make might help improve the ethical environment in the organization, it won’t matter if that organization is run according to political correctness. Going against the orthodoxy by speaking up can lead to being canceled from the organization, meaning being painted in a negative light for everyone in the organization to see. The “thought police” may be at work and stifle dissent thereby restricting free speech.

Reporting Fraud

According to the 2022 Association of Certified Fraud Examiners (ACFE) Occupational Fraud 2022: A Report to the Nations, 42% of frauds were detected by tips, more than half of which came from employees. This shows the importance of having a speak up culture. The survey also reports that organizations with hotlines detect fraud more quickly and have lower losses than organizations without hotlines.

It’s hard to believe that in 2022, some organizations still do not have a whistleblower hotline. They need to develop one immediately, not only to protect reporting employees but also the public.

Posted by Dr. Steven Mintz, The Ethics Sage, on May 4, 2022. You can sign up for Steve's newsletter and learn more about his activities at: Follow him on Facebook at: and on Twitter at: