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Are workplace ‘speak-up’ schemes effective?

David Scott is an experienced human resources director, having worked at Board/Executive level for more than 20 years
Company director

David Scott

Published 6 December 2021 More about David

The story may, so far, have escaped media attention across the whole of the UK, but in Scotland news has emerged of the final stages of a major investigation into bullying at NHS Highland.

Nearly 240 staff are in line for payments from NHS Highland, totalling around £2.5 million.  The payments are the last step in the reconciliation process with staff after an independent investigation identified widespread and deep-rooted bullying in the organisation.

John Sturrock, QC, completed his investigation and report in April 2019 and it provides a comprehensive critique of what went wrong in NHS Highland.  More importantly, it signposted the way for the management of the organisation to change things for the better.

The investigation was prompted back in 2018 when a group of clinicians blew the whistle on what they saw as unacceptable behaviours across the organisation. It is arguable that, without this intervention, the problems at NHS Highland would have carried on unrecognised and unchecked. The toll on bullied staff would, inevitably, have been much worse.

It takes courage to be a whistleblower in any circumstances, but particularly when the issues are around bullying.  People often fear the personal consequences of raising such issues.  They are often concerned about how they will be treated by management and they have to overcome the cynicism that nothing will be done anyway.

In some organisations, including in parts of the NHS, it can also be unclear what the policies and processes are for speaking up or raising concerns.  We believe more could be done to create better channels for raising concerns, and to publicise them more widely to staff.

So, if you’re an employer, what can you do to avoid the kind of upheaval faced by NHS Highland?  Obviously, the key thing is to make sure you treat your employees with respect, that you take a clear and robust approach to challenging bullying behaviour and that your managers and staff know what is expected of them when dealing with colleagues.

But if things go wrong, how will you learn about them more quickly, and before they get so bad that staff have to raise them as public interest disclosures?  It is vital that your organisation’s channels for listening to staff work well.

“Speak up” schemes afford easy access to those who can address concerns, but it is essential that staff know about the schemes, are clear about how they can be accessed, and have no fear of using them.

This means that you need to publicise the channels and the access arrangements widely and persistently.  It means that issues raised must be dealt with promptly and fairly.  And, importantly, it requires that publicity is given to the outcomes of cases that are resolved.

People are looking for easier ways to surface their concerns, and anything an organisation can do to facilitate better feedback from staff will be worthwhile. There are many new developments in technology and processes to enable concerns to be surfaced quickly and confidentially.

However, in the end you will not be judged on what your organisation does to improve feedback from staff about issues of concern.  You will be judged on whether you take the concerns seriously and on what you do about them.

If you would like to talk to us at Verita about whistleblowing, bullying, employee engagement or independent investigations, please get in touch by calling us on 020 7494 5670, contacting us via email at [email protected]. We will be happy to call you back and talk through how we might help. And don’t worry, we won’t charge you for this first meeting! Book a free consultation with us here.

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