Chapter 2: Developing a ‘speak-up’ culture

What is a speak-up culture?

A speak-up culture enables people to raise concerns internally. This could be with a designated officer, department or their manager. It could also be within meetings or bodies that they participate in. A speak-up culture exists when concerns can be raised and addressed internally, with diplomacy, trust and discretion. 

A speak-up culture is an environment where employees and officers of an organisation have confidence that they can report issues to management without fear of negative consequences. 


Useful tip: Moving towards better practice

A speak-up culture is effectively a self-audit process that enables an organisation to strengthen its internal governance in a way that is tangible for both officers and staff. Officers and staff of organisations with a strong speak-up culture will feel confident reporting any potential wrongdoing directly to management. Management can then change processes and policies to to address and reduce the risks identified by the report.

Creating a speak-up culture will build confidence in the organisation’s integrity and build stronger levels of engagement.


What kind of issues get raised?

The types of issues raised might be about internal operations, suspected wrongdoing or a potential breach of the RO Act, internal rules or policies. Sometimes, there may be no actual wrongdoing but rather a lack of understanding of the relevant process or approach.

The benefits of developing a ‘speak-up culture’

Adopting a speak-up culture is an efficient way for management to become aware of and respond to issues quickly. 

When organisations investigate internal reports, they may find issues and concerns. These can then be addressed appropriately, and steps put into place to prevent them recurring. It may be that the issues can be resolved in-house,  or it could be you need to work with the regulator or external advisors. Using best practice policies and processes to deal with internal issues can transform an organisation in positive ways.

Sometimes an investigation will find that nothing was done incorrectly, but there are improvements that could be made to how the conduct or decision is perceived by members and officers, and to make things clearer. This too is a valuable insight. Making these changes can reduce the risk to the organisation of further mistaken complaints or official inquiry.

Case study

General Manager of the FWC v Thompson

In the case of General Manager of the Fair Work Commission v Thompson, it was alleged that the former officer used the union’s funds to make personal purchases and attempted to conceal the nature of those purchases. 

The former officer directed staff to record his personal purchases incorrectly as ‘meeting expenses’ or ‘telephone conferences’. The Court found that the former officer had an obligation to correctly record the true nature of those payments and had breached their duty. 

In this instance, a speak-up culture might have empowered those staff to raise their concerns about the nature of the expenses and the way they were being asked to record them.


How can an organisation achieve a speak-up culture?

A speak-up culture comes from the top leadership down. It must be demonstrated through strong leadership, compassion, transparency, and integrity so that these values become associated with the culture of the organisation. Senior officers must act in a way that is consistent with their messaging, raising concerns, following up reports and most importantly – making changes to process and policy to improve the organisation.

Other steps include:

  • enabling people, if they wish, to raise their issues anonymously
  • respecting and maintaining confidentiality
  • generating policies and processes for internal complaints to be made by members, staff, and officers, so that complaints are investigated and addressed appropriately, and complainants are supported. Include timeframes and appropriate responses so that staff and officers know what to expect from the process
  • ensuring relevant staff are adequately trained in these policies and procedures, and that refresher training is undertaken
  • developing a healthy, supportive culture in your organisation where people feel comfortable to tell management about their concerns. Model this culture from the top down by demonstrating the behaviour and expectation that this will be the behaviour of all staff
  • encouraging people to speak-up about any wrongdoing they notice, by letting all staff know that such information will be appreciated and addressed, and that speaking up will not cause them any detriment
  • responding by investigating any issues raised and acting upon them, and then communicating to all staff that an issue was raised internally that enabled it to be dealt with efficiently
  • considering whether you could form a dedicated committee to receive, investigate and internally deal with complaints. This should be done in accordance with your organisation’s rules. The committee may consist of a designated official to receive disclosures and escalate them as necessary; an investigator to gather evidence and prepare recommended outcomes, and a nominated senior officer to receive the recommendations and decide on appropriate action to be taken. It is also recommended that a whistleblower protection officer be appointed, who would ensure that any eligible disclosers who report disclosable conduct do not receive any adverse action because of making the disclosure
  • acting to ensure that if someone does experience a negative outcome because of making a complaint, everyone involved knows that it was unacceptable and future instances will not be tolerated
  • ensuring the process is visible, approachable, transparent and trusted. If there is a designated person they must have strong leadership skills, so that people feel safe and confident making reports to them. 




Useful tip: Identify a second officer in your policies to receive reports

This is particularly important if the relevant person is either the source or the focus of the allegation.  It also allows people to approach someone who makes them feel most comfortable.


What do I do after an internal disclosure is made?

While this guide doesn’t cover off the steps for handing internal complaints or external whistleblowers, the Commission has a number of guides and a module in the Digital Classroom that deal with this question.


Useful Tip: Guides to help you with internal processes

The Commission has a guide for handling internal complaints that organisations can download. This gives you a procedure for processing internal complaints.


Developing trust, good culture and confidence

A big part of having effective internal complaints practices is ensuring that the people who raise concerns are adequately supported. A person who makes a complaint may be quite anxious after doing so, especially if they do not know what to expect. 

Consider whether your internal process or policy should include information on supporting the people involved in a complaint.

Finally, it is essential that your process is followed whenever applicable, and that it is known about by all your officers and employees. Consistency is the key to ensuring that your organisation’s ethical culture and values thrive. The process must be followed regardless of the situation, who complains, or which group or person may be involved. Everyone is accountable.  

This way your organisation and its leadership can build a good reputation and a solid basis for trust.




Disclosers may be protected after they make an internal complaint

It’s important to remember that an eligible discloser (such as an officer or employee of the relevant organisation) who makes a report of disclosable conduct internally may still be eligible for protection against reprisals. Disclosable conduct is conduct that is suspected to be a contravention of any law of the Commonwealth.


Building a speak-up culture takes time

Building a speak-up culture can be a slow process that involves consistently listening, investigating, acting and protecting your officers and employees. If people feel confident that they will be supported and issues will be dealt with adequately, they are more likely to come forward as soon as they are aware of an issue. This enables the organisation to get on the front foot and resolve any issues before they become a bigger problem. 

online classroom

Digital classroom: Whistleblower disclosures

The Digital Classroom has a module that focuses on whistleblower disclosures. If a person complains to the regulator that may trigger a whistleblower investigation. A strong internal culture may help you resolve issues before they become formal investigations and will also help you work with the regulator if a person does put in a protected disclosure.


Useful tools and resources

Go back to:
Good Governance Guide introduction


Next chapter 3: 
Officer induction