Leaders must ‘openly speak up’

Leaders must ‘openly speak up’

26 October 2021 By Lauren Croft
speak up

A good culture will drive open and honest conversations and make employees feel safe at work, this panel discussion revealed.

As part of the 2021 Governance Institute Public Sector Forum, a panel of business leaders and commissioners discussed how to speak openly, honestly and respectfully at work and how leaders can help their employees feel psychologically safe.

Moderated by Scott Way, director of BDO Industrial and Organisational Psychology, the [email protected]: The need for frank and fearless conversations session explored ways to address issues in the workplace – and what organisations need to be doing to facilitate the culture to do so.

Christine Holgate, group chief executive officer at Toll Global Express and former CEO of Australia Post, said that “we’re not progressing on this major issue” when it comes to employees feeling safe in the workplace.


Work recently done by Dr Kate Jenkins showed that whilst one in three women feel unsafe in the workplace, with some level of victimisation or bullying – but only four per cent will speak up, said Ms Holgate.

“Why aren’t they speaking up? Why aren’t they raising these issues? Why is it important to have these conversations? Because if we don’t, you could have a large percentage of your workforce being unproductive, and then there’s the rippling impact onto other people around the issue.” 

Ms Holgate added that organisations need to adopt a positive duty of care, and people need somewhere to go to complain that has power behind it.

“I think that’s very important because we are living in a society where parts of our society are getting further discriminated against, and there needs to be absolutely a high concentration on making sure those people have a voice.” 

It’s also important for leaders to show their employees they have the ability to listen. When Ms Holgate started at Australia Post, she removed all the doors and started the organisation on a “cultural change journey” after taking over from Ahmed Fahour in 2017. She also put her mobile number and email address on the company website so employees could raise issues with her directly.


“When people start to know that you’re prepared to listen, then people will start to talk to you. But you don’t get trust overnight,” she added.

Dr John Byrne AM, Commissioner of the Equal Opportunity Commission in Western Australia, agreed with this sentiment – and said that increased diversity within an organisation would mean people feel more comfortable speaking up.

“It’s important to have gender equity and gender balance in the workplace.” 

Having more women in the workplace “changes the culture of an organisation,” he added.

Dr Nikola Stepanov, Queensland Integrity Commissioner (and the first female Commissioner) said that generally, people are concerned with how coming forward with a problem will reflect upon them within their company, as well as the need to gather evidence of their complaint.

“It has a really terrible impact when people do come forward, particularly when they feel as though they’re fighting against a really deeply embedded culture. And they may have seen their colleagues strive for change and then be pushed out, because that’s ordinarily what happens,” she said.

“Often people have been gaslighted, or another form of psychological manipulation, so they question whether their interpretation of events or what’s happened might be flawed in some way. So, they’re often questioning what happened and whether it was bad and then by that stage, they’ve also been worn down or threatened and feel like they have no choice but to leave, just so they can regain some form of psychological safety.”

Because of this, Ms Holgate said that organisations need independent policies in order for women, in particular, to feel comfortable raising an issue.

“Organisations generally have whistleblowing policies, and the best ones are often run by an independent third party. When you consider that 60 per cent of honours degrees are women, yet 6 per cent of the leaders are women … women are afraid to speak up because they don’t want to ruin their career prospects. They don’t want to be seen as being difficult,” she said.

“But it’s really important that they do speak up, because if they don’t, then it will continue. And that’s the problem. They need to speak up and so do the people around them. And unfortunately, they don’t feel safe, so you need to put things in place to enable them to.”

And whilst having policies in place is a good start, having a good culture is as, if not more, important, she added.

“Policies are often a box-ticking exercise, for organisations to say they’ve done something – but you must have a culture that enables it.” 

Dr Stepanov added that organisations that have good cultures often don’t have the problem of people feeling unable to speak out.

“You don’t have that culture where they’re basically abandoned because no one wants to upset the status quo. What you need to do as a leader in a workplace is openly speak up,” she said.

“Your staff, and those around you, need to see that you’re happy to speak up in an environment where it is a very unpopular thing to do, but you’re speaking up – particularly in a role where you have more power.”

Having “no pay gaps at all” as well as increased diversity can improve the culture of an organisation, Dr Byrne added.

“Diversity at all levels of the organisation. Then the outcome will be a good culture,” he said.

“You have to strive towards diversity, including having people from different backgrounds and people with disabilities.”

Moving forward, more companies are looking at the “what, not the how”, as well as doing more surveys for employees to drive positive change, according to Ms Holgate.

“The more those things happen, the more that there’s a focus on the how and not the what, the more those cultural things will progress quicker.” 

Leaders must ‘openly speak up’
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