“In their own words”…Actions – Listen up
In the following extract from the ICAS research publication “Speak up? Listen up? Whistleblow? In their own words – Insights into the ethical dilemmas of ICAS members” we hear from ICAS members about their real-life experiences of ethical challenges, “In their own words”.
"The most important thing if you are going to have this culture where people are going to raise concerns, is the listen up culture - where people don’t only know that they can speak up through these routes, but their concerns will be listened to no matter how they are raised." (Extract from interview with Rose)
5.2 Listen up
Whereas speaking up was frequently mentioned, listening was raised less frequently. Ethan did raise listening as an important element so “the person that is raising the matter is comfortable that the other person that is listening is knowledgeable about their situation and not just making up an answer if you follow”. Here, listening was related to making the person “feel comfortable”.
Alan had a situation that had made him feel very uncomfortable. He had been asked to go to an overseas country and, although the opportunity “sounded brilliant”, when he did an internet search he came across information about some human rights abuses and he did not feel that he wanted to go to this country. He said that although the conversation had not been difficult in itself, it had been difficult for him to raise it:
"It wasn’t a difficult conversation but it was difficult for me to raise. Once I’d raised it I realised it was absolutely fine and realistically anyone is going to do that job but I felt a little bit silly raising a concern like that. I wasn’t sure if I was being over sensitive."
His fears were allayed by the fact that the firm “were completely understanding” and said not to worry as they would get someone else, “so it wasn’t really a difficult thing at all once it was mentioned”. In his current role, working for a family business, listening is also important to him as he says that he has “enough clout to be able to say to the owners ‘no’ and they listen”.
Edward also mentioned listening, this time in the context of describing an organisation that he had really enjoyed working for, where “their integrity was key to their reputation”. Here, listening was part of an effective overall culture:
"The people that ran the business were very fair and equitable and correct, and they listened and if I raised a concern they immediately took that on board."
Edward also recalled a particular individual who was happy to listen, who acted as a “sounding board”, support which Edward felt was very valuable. He would ask:
"Where are you on the line (Edward)?’ He said, ‘Are you over it?’ And I said, ‘No but I am really close.’ He says, ‘Right. I mean, he wasn’t a CA, he was just a good guy, who’s a good person, who had my best at heart, not just in the business but as a person. And we would have those discussions and he was quite supportive of me, wouldn’t always fight my battles for me but he did listen."
Joshua’s situation was different. He had raised issues concerning overspending on the part of a more senior colleague and said “there was no listening to me”. Morven distinguished between listening and acting. She remembered a senior member of staff who avoided conflict:
"He didn’t like situations of conflict. So, he would be very empathic. You know, he would be listening and trying to sort of like remove the emotion and the stress from the situation in a very quiet voiced manner but would never then deal with the situation."
So when she raised an issue with him, “the issue was never resolved but, you know, in his mind, he had dealt with it because he had dealt with it in a non-confrontational way”.
Laura felt that organisations often “talk a really good game on listening” but do not follow that through. She was clear that listening is really important and described a person she had worked for earlier in her career who was:
"Very laid back, seemingly very approachable, portrayed himself as a great listener, I’m here to serve you, I’m here to make sure that you can be successful, but actually when something was raised if it was something that was different to his view he didn’t really know how to deal with it and he didn’t welcome it. So I think people need to feel comfortable that they’ll speak up but they’ll need to feel comfortable that they’ll be listened to also and that positive action will happen."
She therefore saw listening as the counterpart to, and a necessary component of, speaking up but also that listening had to then be acted upon for it to be effective. This view had been reinforced by her experience of raising a concern with this boss about a colleague who was claiming expenses inappropriately. She said that he “basically said I don’t know why you’re wasting my time with this. If you think there is a problem of course we need to investigate it but I really don’t think that this is a very good use of time.” She raised the matter with someone else and eventually the matter was investigated but the whole experience left her feeling dissatisfied:
"I felt really uncomfortable. I felt like from the business perspective, I felt like I’d done the wrong thing. From a personal integrity perspective I felt like I’d done the right thing, but it certainly coloured my view of how could I work in an organisation that didn’t really operate with any kind of integrity around its financials and any kind of standards in terms of how it expected staff to behave."
Paula’s boss seemed similar in some ways to Laura’s one as “he comes across as if he is very approachable and he is genuinely a nice person most of the time…but he is only approachable if he likes what he is hearing”. She describes him as a “mixed character” who sometimes asks her to review emails he has written because he values her opinion. However, because he is unpredictable, she says that “anyone my level and below are just too scared to speak up”. Yet, on two occasions when she asked to go on some training before visiting a foreign country on business where there were known serious safety concerns, she was told that this was not possible as there was no money in the budget until the following year for this type of training. She describes the countries in question as very “hostile environments”. On the first occasion, she did not have to go as the director in that country agreed that she should not go as she had not had the relevant training. She describes her issue as being that her boss had not seen any problem with her going. Then, being faced with the same issue again but in relation to a visit to a different country, she described the situation as follows:
"It’s like hitting my head against a brick wall. And I don’t think I am being unreasonable. I am not asking for anything that any other organisation wouldn’t give their staff… So, it’s just a very difficult situation that I am in at the moment. So, to send me out without any training is a very scary thought."
Paula’s situation is therefore that people are scared to speak up because they do not know what reaction they will get and they feel that their concerns will not be listened to. There is no speak up helpline and, even if there was, because she is in a small team, she believes that her comments would be traced back to her. She had considered contacting ICAS but did not do so because she did not feel that they would be able to say anything other than that she should either go over the head of her boss to the highest level or to leave the organisation, neither of which would help her as that would be “putting my job and my mortgage in jeopardy”. She would therefore like ICAS to provide more support for younger members like herself, including counselling.
The value of listening
In her role at a professional body, Rose also saw the value in listening, saying that if a professional body’s members are being encouraged to speak up, then it is therefore the other person’s responsibility to listen:
"The most important thing if you are going to have this culture where people are going to raise concerns, is the listen up culture - where people don’t only know that they can speak up through these routes, but their concerns will be listened to no matter how they are raised."
She viewed listening widely:
"What you need to be doing is listening more widely, so not just to your hotlines, to your email addresses. You need to be involving your line managers with this, right down to the most junior line manager who only manages one person and saying, ‘Has anyone said anything?’ You need to be walking around using the staff surveys, using things like Glassdoor, exit interviews, even people’s – if people are posting stuff on social media, customers, about your company - that may be indicative of a speak up or whistle blowing issue."
At the end of Paula’s interview, she said, “I have to say I feel a lot better having spoken to you today about this”. Morven also felt that her interview had “almost been like a counselling session” because she had felt that someone had listened to her. Therefore, the process of being listened to was helpful in itself. Other interviewees referred to the fact that they had found it “therapeutic” or “cathartic” to talk about their dilemmas. The very process of being able to talk and to be listened to was found to be helpful. At the end of his interview, Sam remarked “That was very therapeutic – you could charge for that!”
In a series of extracts from the research hear from ICAS members about the real-life situations they have faced - “In their own words”.
Hear more about the key findings from the author of the research Catriona Paisey, Professor of Accounting, University of Glasgow