Understand your company’s values to ensure your culture thrives

Workplace Relations & Safety
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Employees will not come forward and report troubling behaviour if they fear retaliation. Here’s how you can establish and maintain your organisation’s values.

We all aspire to work in an environment where we feel valued, free to express our views and confident that we’re all on the same page when it comes to ethical business practices and integrity.

Unfortunately, as the misconduct scandals and high-profile resignations brought about by the Banking Royal Commission have shown, the reality is that many organisations suffer lapses in ethics and compliance. This is common for businesses driven solely by profits; where it’s easy for the relentless pursuit of financial gain to trump all other considerations.

In this article, we explore the importance of values, which can help foster a workplace environment where employees feel empowered to report misconduct and undesirable behaviour.

Why are values important?

Whether we recognise it or not, values are important to each of us. They influence and inform our decisions – from whether we should take a particular job, to whether we should start a family.

When it comes to corporate culture, values are no different. A company’s core values are the essence of its identity. They provide a framework by which a business engages with its employees, customers/clients and other stakeholders, and ultimately influence and shape its culture. In this sense, a business’s values can be said to be the essential elements that underpin the behaviour of the organisation and its people. They are a roadmap determining the direction that the business and its people take in everyday work situations.

Most organisations have a set of identified ‘core values’. In our experience, these often constitute no more than a few words expressed in an ‘About Us’ section on a company website or in an induction handbook that is glossed over by new employees on their first day.

But to be effective, a company’s core values need to be lived and breathed by everyone within the organisation. They need to be consistently communicated and should underpin all of the processes and practices (both formal and informal) which direct how the business, and the teams within it, operate.

What values are crucial in building and promoting a ‘speak up’ culture?

Like any relationship, trust comes first. If an employee feels they cannot trust their manager or their employer, then they will keep any type of misconduct to themselves or take it elsewhere. You need to look no further than the media scrutiny of companies such as Flight Centre to know that this can cause all sorts of problems for a business down the track.

Accordingly, instilling a culture of trust and confidence within your workplace will go a long way to reassuring employees that they can, and indeed should, speak up about anything concerning. Quelling fears of retaliation for speaking up about ethics or compliance issues and reassuring employees they will not be treated unfairly if they make a complaint, are a big part of this.

If your workplace doesn’t have an open-door policy where staff feel they can approach and talk to management about issues concerning them, then employees will not speak up. Similarly, if your employees are not encouraged to call out unethical behaviour and ‘do the right thing’ it will be difficult for them to uphold the standards your organisation is trying to maintain.

Leaders who encourage employees to ask questions, take employee concerns seriously and follow through on concerns, generally send a strong message about integrity. This is fundamental in creating a workplace culture where candour and ethical decision-making is front and centre.

How can your business instil these values within its culture?

There are a number of steps leaders can take to create an atmosphere of trust and candour. In particular, your business should:

  1. Establish grievance policies and procedures that are clearly communicated.
  2. Confirm your business has appropriate whistleblowing options in place. Coming forward with a grievance can be daunting for many people due to the stigma that surrounds whistleblowers and the fear of retribution. This is especially the case when a staff member is required to report to someone they would not normally have a direct line of contact to. Given this, it is essential for staff to be able to report issues/grievances (eg. by way of email or an online portal) and to so do anonymously if they desire.
  3. Ensure that managers and supervisors receive thorough and effective training on how to respond to, and guide, employees who come forward with issues or questions. This could also extend to providing full-team training with real life examples. When employees choose to report issues in a face-to-face manner, managers should be trained to focus on the allegation and not the person raising the issue.
  4. Confirm that managers maintain regular contact with their team members. Managers who communicate regularly with their teams (either individually or during team meetings) and ask questions, listen carefully and act on advice from the team, create more transparent and open cultures.
  5. Consider implementing a policy of non-retaliation for raising issues and asking questions. It’s important for employees to understand they will be protected from blowback from the time they make a complaint, and at every step of an investigation or whistleblowing process. Employees will not come forward if they fear retaliation.

An organisation’s values are the core of how it operates. Every so often an organisation needs to recall and refresh its values and ensure that its managers and employees are on the same page.

A version of this article originally appeared in HRM Online.

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