We explore the purpose of confidential reporting and how it leads to better decisions.
When taking decisions to protect the health, safety and wellbeing of our people in a rapidly changing world, where do we turn for information?
With new guidance, proposed solutions and understanding of the risks emerging daily, a feedback loop is critical so we know what is working. Are the risk controls giving our people the confidence to feel safe at work?
Many organisations I work with have recognised this need and established a range of communication channels between staff and decision makers, ranging from technology-enabled reporting systems to hotlines straight to the CEO. Confidential reporting is a crucial piece of this safety puzzle. Listening to those who are otherwise not heard can reveal risks that other channels can miss.
Lord Cullen endorsed confidential reporting services after his investigation into the 1999 Ladbroke Grove rail collision. He realised that it offered a way for employees to provide intelligence about what was really happening on the front line, which might prevent incidents like Ladbroke Grove, when otherwise they may not speak up.
The context of the COVID-19 crisis demonstrates how confidential reporting benefits frontline workers and businesses in other ways too. It is not just about preventing significant accidents. It takes on a new purpose in a public health crisis – when a rapidly developing and unprecedented situation impacts multiple industries and locations.
From reaction to action
Without two-way communication, a company cannot manage a crisis effectively: rumours can replace fact; employees may feel disconnected and demoralised; and, if the company adopts a siege mentality and is closed off to new information, it may not receive the business intelligence it needs to make helpful decisions. For CIRAS, being a ‘messenger’ is a core role: being the voice of staff who want their concerns taken into account in decision making, but don’t feel able to speak up through the usual channels.
The primary purpose of confidential reporting is to facilitate action. Once a company knows about a concern, it can act to manage the risk. There is an important secondary role too. Seeing concerns result in a change, or acknowledgement and further investigation, can raise employee morale. Employees know that their input and experience is valued and so they are more likely to raise concerns in the future, beyond COVID-19.
Listening is another important role. Confidential reporting allows people to voice their concerns in a way that they are comfortable with. Having someone independent on the end of the phone with time to really listen can make a huge difference to someone who is fearful for the safety of themselves, their colleagues or customers.
With worries about job insecurity or loss of income adding to health fears, employees may be reluctant to provide honest feedback openly. The 2017 Stevenson-Farmer review revealed that only 11% of employees had discussed a recent mental health problem with their line manager. Half of employees said they would not discuss mental health with their line manager. In a crisis, people may also feel unable to turn to their usual support networks, as others are preoccupied or harder to communicate with if working patterns have changed.
There are other factors at play. Research suggests that frontline staff are less able than office staff to raise concerns with their employers. It found that people in frontline operational roles are less likely to have access to channels that allow them to speak up and that management structures often do not allow for employees to raise concerns without fear of repercussions. In these situations, an independent confidential reporting service provides an outlet for people to speak indirectly and confidentially to their employer about the issues really worrying them.
We always ask staff why they have chosen to raise their concern confidentially. For the majority it is a lack of faith in internal channels, but fear of retribution continues to be a factor despite the efforts of many companies to build open cultures.
Collaboration is more critical than ever in a rapidly changing world where there is no time for ‘good practices’ to be codified. An open mindset to learning, not only from your own frontline staff but also from the staff and practices of other companies and sectors, paves the way for a stronger safety culture that will continue beyond this crisis.
While perhaps not surprising, for a full five weeks from mid-March, all concerns reported to confidential reporting service CIRAS related to COVID-19. Usual health and safety concerns vanished. These are now re-emerging and will provide insights that help companies stay tuned in to what is really happening on the front line as they adapt to the post COVID-19 landscape.
Heuristics and heroes
One of the hidden dangers of crisis situations is that when under stress, decision-makers may revert to heuristics, or ‘mental shortcuts’ and ‘gut instinct’, rather than deliberate decision-making that takes a balanced account of all information.
This can be compounded by ‘groupthink’ – reaching a consensus without a wide range of inputs and experience. Opportunities to make things safer may be missed. In his book ‘Rebel Ideas’, Matthew Syed argues that cognitive diversity, including alternative perspectives, provides the chance to challenge assumptions that may not be relevant or helpful to a decision. A confidential reporting route offers an alternative information flow so that people who may not usually be heard in decision-making processes have a chance to raise their voice.
There are more barriers to speaking up in a crisis. Even those who would ordinarily approach their manager may think twice at a time of economic uncertainty. The ‘hero’ mindset can also be problematic: a manager who decides that they alone should take decisions to ‘make sure things get done’ or because ‘it’s quicker’ and assumes that this is also safer or better for the company. Or a frontline worker who soldiers on as before when a new safety procedure is agreed, or adjusts their work without consulting anyone else. Even if colleagues notice and disagree with the safety of these decisions, they may only feel able to raise these concerns confidentially.
In all situations, the number one benefit of confidential reporting is confidentiality. It means anyone can speak up if something is worrying them, but without the possible consequences of more open channels, such as consideration of who they are personally. The concerns they raise will be investigated objectively.
So maintaining input from diverse sources is critical to sound decision-making on health, wellbeing and safety at any time. A confidential option makes sure nobody is excluded – invaluable in a crisis as we are, after all, all in this together.
Catherine Baker is director of CIRAS, an independent, not-for-profit, confidential reporting service.