Annual Review 2018/2019


In 2017, drawing on the Assessment results of the previous year and our discussions with firms and others, we explored the theme of how to create a culture of accountability and not of blame. In 2018, informed by a second year of Assessment findings and our wider work (including BSB events, discussions with boards and executive teams, our ongoing work with our Certification Regime Working Group on the effective implementation of regulatory references, and our engagement with firms, professional bodies and a range of other organisations in and outside the banking sector through our 2017/2018 Professionalism Forum), we decided to explore a particular aspect of this theme — speaking up — in greater depth.

Speaking up, in the context of the BSB’s work, is about much more than whistleblowing. When we talk about speaking up, we are referring to the readiness of employees to speak about, question or challenge something about which they feel uncomfortable, concerned or unsure at work. Doing so requires them to trust their own judgement and to take the risk of questioning decisions, actions or accepted norms. This is not easy in any environment, and can be particularly difficult in the workplace. It is, however, precisely in the workplace that speaking up, questioning and challenge is vital, not only to prevent or expose bad behaviour and to catch and remedy mistakes, but to foster innovation and continuous improvement.

Speaking up, diversity and inclusion are inextricably linked. The wisdom of crowds works only when the crowd contains a diversity of thought and each individual feels safe to voice their thoughts. In a firm where different views are welcomed, respected and encouraged, such views will be offered, and the organisation as a whole will be better placed to learn more quickly, catch problems earlier and enhance both its competitiveness and its appeal as an employer. Where employees bring a diversity of experience and perspectives to work but do not find an organisation willing to listen, they will remain silent or go elsewhere, while the firm questions the tangible benefits (beyond box-ticking) of diversity and wonders why it has a retention problem in parts of its workforce.

How to encourage speaking up has been a strand of many aspects of the BSB’s work over the past year. A member event with Margaret Heffernan facilitated a very open and wide-ranging discussion, drawing on experience in the banking sector and elsewhere. It also reinforced the importance of firms avoiding making something that is already intrinsically difficult, all the harder through their organisational processes or culture. Observational techniques, as used in ethnography, can be helpful in this context. We caught up in 2018 with member firms that had participated in a series of workshops we ran the previous year with Professor Daniel Beunza at the London School of Economics. These workshops taught techniques for stepping back and observing, as if watching an organisation for the first time, how people work together, communicate and interact. This approach, as we learned from our follow-up, had enabled participants to identify issues that were getting in the way of better working and communication within their firm and address them. The difficult part was not making what were generally simple and practical changes, but spotting from the inside what needed to be changed in the first place.

As part of our work on speaking up, we also used the 2018 BSB Survey to learn more about the experiences and perceptions both of employees who spoke up about issues that concerned them, and those who had concerns but chose to remain silent.

Three of our core Survey questions (Q12, Q14 and Q19) relate to speaking up. Scores on these questions held stable in 2018 after very small improvements the previous year (figures 18 and 19). Over a quarter of respondents said that they would be worried about the negative consequences for them if they raised concerns; a similar proportion to each of the previous two years.

Fig 18. BSB Survey 2018 responses to speaking up questions (Q12, Q14 and Q19)

19. BSB Survey scores — speaking up questions (Q12, Q14 and Q19) 2016 – 2018

In 2018 we asked some additional questions in our Survey to help inform our work on this theme. We asked respondents whether they had wanted to voice a concern in the last 12 months; whether they had in fact spoken up; if so, what their experience had been; and if not, what had prevented them from speaking up (figure 20).

24% of all employees said that they had wanted to raise a concern at work over the last 12 months. These concerns related most commonly to actions not in the best interest of customers, clients and members, ignoring internal policies, bullying or discrimination (figure 21).

Looking at the responses by business area, the percentages of employees who said that they had wanted to raise a concern over the past 12 months were very similar, ranging from 20% in Investment Banking to 24% in Retail, Commercial Banking and Functions.

In Retail and Commercial Banking, the most common concerns that employees had wanted to raise related to ‘actions not in the best interests of customers, clients or members’. In Investment Banking and Functions, by contrast, the proportion of employees saying that they had wanted to raise a concern of this type was similar to the proportions who had concerns about ‘ignoring internal policies and procedures’ and ‘bullying’.

Employees who wanted to raise a concern were more likely to speak up when this related to organisational issues (actions not in the interest of customers, ignoring policies or market integrity) than personal concerns (sexual harassment, bullying or discrimination). Among employees who wanted to speak up about organisational issues, 64% to 73% did (depending on the issue). Among those who had concerns relating to personal issues, 37% to 52% did so (again, depending on the issue).

Of those respondents who had wanted to raise a concern over the previous 12 months, 63% said that they had spoken up (figure 24). A quarter said they had not done so, while the remainder preferred not to say. Among those employees who said that they had spoken up about their concern, 42% said that they were listened to and taken seriously, and 40% that they were not (with the remainder unsure).

If firms are to create environments in which people feel able and encouraged to speak out, they need to focus also on how they respond to challenge and feedback when it is offered. For every person who speaks up and feels that they were not listened to and taken seriously, there may be many more who, aware of their colleagues’ experience (or given what they have heard about their colleagues’ experience), are discouraged from doing so, to the detriment of the organisation and its customers.

When employees did speak up, they were most likely to say that they had felt listened to and taken seriously when their concern related to sexual harassment (57% of those who spoke up). Among those who had spoken up about discrimination, in contrast, 54% said that they had not felt listened to and taken seriously, and only 28% that they had (figure 25).

Our Survey responses show that employees’ willingness to raise a concern depends on the issue it relates to. The extent to which employees who do speak up feel that they are listened to, also varies by issue.

As figure 23 illustrated, the issues that employees who had a concern were most likely to speak up about related to actions not in the interest of customers, clients or members. Three-quarters of those who had a concern about actions not in the interest of customers, clients or members raised it yet only half of those said that they felt listened to (figure 25). Both of these proportions, for ease of comparison, are brought together in figure 26.

Compared with organisational issues such as customers, procedures and market integrity, employees were less likely to have spoken up about sexual harassment. When those who did have concerns about sexual harassment spoke up, however, they were more likely to feel listened to than those who spoke up about other concerns. Employees were least likely to raise concerns around discrimination, and least likely also to say that they were taken seriously when they did so.

As figure 26 shows, the proportion of employees who say that they feel taken seriously when they do speak up, varies considerably by issue. Even at the top of the range — where the issue relates to sexual harassment — the proportion is only 57%. An industry that wants its people to speak up when things are going wrong, and to suggest how things could be done better, needs to think harder about how it responds to the feedback and challenge it receives, whatever the issue.

Having looked at the reported experiences of employees who had a concern and spoke up about it, we turn now to the experience of those who chose not to.

Among those who had had a concern over the previous 12 months but chosen not to raise it, the most common reasons given were that they felt it would be held against them if they did, or that nothing would happen as a result; the dual barriers, in other words (and as identified in our 2017 Annual Review) of fear and futility. A smaller but significant proportion also chose not to speak up because they felt that doing so would make them look bad, and/ or because they did not trust the confidentiality of the process (figure 27).

If firms are to encourage people to speak up and to create an environment in which speaking up is the norm, they need to address all the barriers to doing so. It is clearly important, for example, to have clear and trusted speaking up mechanisms, both formal and informal. These routes and procedures will not, however, be used as much as the firm would wish, if those with something to say see no point in doing so. Their perceptions will also be shaped by the experience of or stories about colleagues in the firm who did speak up, and especially when that experience was not a good one.

What is clear from figure 27 is the wide range of factors that can prevent people from speaking up. Alongside the aforementioned fear and futility, these can include communication channels and not knowing who to speak to; trust in the system; the impact of speaking up on colleagues, or on how it would make the individual themselves look to others; and social norms around speaking up.

Looking at the reasons given for not speaking up on different types of issue, the most common reason given by employees who had wanted to raise a concern but chose not to, was the fear that doing so would be held against them. As figure 28 illustrates, this was cited by 75% of employees who had wanted to speak up about discrimination but did not, 68% of those who had been concerned about bullying, and 60% of those concerned about policies being ignored. The sense that nothing would happen even if they did speak up, was also an important factor in the decision not to speak up, and particularly where the issue related to organisational rather than personal matters (e.g. to actions not in the best interests of customers, or to market integrity).

Employees who had wanted to raise a concern about sexual harassment but did not, were more likely than those who had held back from raising other types of concern to say that this was because ‘no one else does this in my organisation’.

Fig 28. BSB Survey 2018 — reasons given by employees for not speaking up, by concern type
Respondents could give several reasons for not having spoken up about their concern

The BSB Survey data, along with other internal information available to firms, can be analysed to help firms that wish to encourage employees to speak up, do so in the most effective way. We have begun, for example, to analyse the 2018 data in order to help firms address the perception that speaking up will have no effect. This includes helping the firm identify, in the first instance, whether the problem is primarily one of substance (i.e. when people speak up they do not feel listened to) or communication (i.e. when people speak up they do feel listened to, but this is not the perception of those who choose not to speak up and may be a factor in their not doing so).

Employees’ perceptions of how likely they are to be listened to on a particular type of issue may not always tally with the experience of those who do speak up on that issue, and the types of concern that are most likely to be raised by employees may not be those that are most likely to be perceived as listened to. Using data from the 2018 Survey, figure 29 shows, on the left-hand side, the proportion of employees in individual business areas at firms who had wanted to raise a concern but chose not to, and said that that this was because they felt that nothing would happen as a consequence. The right-hand side takes those same business areas and shows the proportion of employees in each area who did speak up and felt that they had been listened to. The left-hand side, in a sense, depicts ‘perceived futility’ in different business areas of firms; the right-hand side, ‘experienced futility’ (i.e. employees not feeling listened to or taken seriously) in those same business areas.


Dotted lines link those individual business areas where a high proportion of employees who did not speak up, chose not to because their expectation of any response was low (left-hand side), but where the experience of those who did speak up was a positive one (right-hand side). Where this is the case, firms may — as well as continuing to ensure that even more of those who speak up feel listened to — wish to focus primarily on how to communicate and share the positive experiences of speaking up, in order to encourage others to do likewise.

In other business areas, the opposite may be the case; perceived futility may not be among the most common barriers to speaking up among those who choose not to do so, but the actual experience of speaking up may leave a relatively high proportion of those who do, feeling that they were not listened to or taken seriously. An example of this is the business area joined on each side of figure 29 by the solid line. Where this is the case, the issues that the firm needs to address in the first instance will be of substance and process rather than communication.

We are continuing to analyse the 2018 Survey data in relation to speaking up. Our new Insights team is beginning to work with individual member firms on interventions to encourage both speaking up and listening. We would welcome questions, thoughts and ideas on this theme from firms and organisations — within and outside the banking sector, and in the UK and elsewhere — as this work continues over the coming year.



Fig 20. BSB Survey 2018 additional questions — speaking up

  • Fig 21. BSB Survey 2018 additional questions — issues on which employees had wanted to raise concern

  • Fig 22. BSB Survey 2018 additional question – issues about which employees had wanted to raise concerns, by business area

  • Fig 23. BSB Survey 2018 additional question — proportion of employees who had wanted to raise concerns, who did so

  • Fig 24. BSB Survey 2018 additional question — (Of those who did raise their concerns) Do you feel your concerns were (or are being) listened to and taken seriously?

  • Fig 25. BSB Survey 2018 — employees’ experience of feeling listened to, by type of concern

  • Fig 26. BSB Survey 2018 — proportion of employees who raised a concern and proportion who felt listened to, by issue

  • Fig 27. BSB Survey 2018 — reasons given by employees for not speaking up

  • Fig 29. BSB Survey 2018 — futility and speaking up: perceptions and experiences, by business area