The sound of silence
This article was written by Jenny Robinson, BSB Senior Behavioural Scientist, Dr. Jesal Sheth, BSB Policy Associate and Behavioural Scientist, and Yuwei Zhang, BSB Data Scientist.
When we think about ‘voice climate’, we often think in terms of our colleagues being able to speak up about concerns. In the 2019 BSB Employee Survey we asked a range of questions on this topic to enable us to build a more nuanced understanding of the types of concern employees across the UK banking industry want to raise, how they raise them and how satisfied they are with the outcome of raising their concerns. This is the first of two pieces highlighting some of the findings from this data.
Of the c.80,000 employees across 29 firms in the UK banking industry surveyed in 2019, a third had at least one concern that they had wanted to raise over the previous 12 months. Of these, 23% did not, in fact, raise a concern: they remained silent. The most common concerns that people wanted to raise related to workload, colleague competence and capability, and performance management. These were also considered the most frequently raised issues by people who did raise their concerns. We next looked at whether there are concern types that are less likely to be raised.
Of all the concerns that survey respondents wanted to raise, 12% related to the category of what we have called ‘personal concerns’, which includes bullying, discrimination and sexual harassment. At least 32% of these concerns were not raised, compared to just 16% for concerns relating to actions not in the best interests of customers, clients or members, or 18% for concerns relating to colleague competence and capability. We estimated how likely someone was to remain silent when they had concerns that they wanted to raise, depending on the type of concern they had. We found that those who wanted to raise personal concerns were 11% more likely to remain silent relative to those with other types of concern. This result holds when we control for factors such as the respondent’s gender, ethnicity, tenure in the firm, work location, line management responsibilities, customer-facing status, employment status, and firm-specific characteristics.
This asymmetry in willingness to voice concerns about personal issues relative to others may reflect several factors. Previous research by the BSB shows that the reasons people give for not speaking up can be loosely grouped under two categories; fear and futility. Personal concerns such as bullying, discrimination and sexual harassment are based on one’s subjective experience and people may be unwilling to speak up due to fear, not just of reprisals, but of not being believed at all (and the implications that would follow from this). When evaluating whether to give voice to these types of concern, the emotional cost and intensity of speaking up is potentially higher than with other concern types. We hope that by bringing light to it, we can help firms focus attention on the issues that go unspoken.
Finally, our analysis also highlighted another factor that has a statistically significant effect on someone’s likelihood of remaining silent about concerns: their ethnicity. Black and Asian people who had concerns they wanted to raise were respectively 13% and 8% more likely to remain silent than White people. Where there is an asymmetry in voice, with disproportionate silence from specific communities, this can result in the absence of diverse and meaningful contributions for firms from these ‘missing voices’. The ability to give voice to concerns, in the expectation of being listened to, is also an important antecedent of employee engagement (Purcell & Hall (2012); Ruck et al. (2017)) so we can anticipate that employee engagement in minority groups may be impacted by asymmetries in voice behaviour. Our previous research has also confirmed that people are more likely to speak up where they feel safe and believe that their opinions will be both valued and acted upon. Firms should be active in addressing factors that impede voice, not just across the board, but for specific minority groups within their organisations, so that every voice is listened to.
Banking Standards Board. 2019. Annual Review 2018-2019. 12 August 2020.
Purcell, J., & M. Hall. 2012. Voice and participation in the modern workplace: challenges and prospects. Acas Future of Workplace Relations discussion paper series.
Ruck, K., Welch, M., & Menara, B. (2017). Employee voice: an antecedent to organisational engagement? Public Relations Review, 43(5), 904-914.
See the BSB Assessment Results 2019.