NHS secondment to HSBC – third blog post

Rhona Galt is on a six-month internship to a non-NHS industry sponsored by NHS Improvement and supported by The Whitehall & Industry Group. The internship is aimed at female leaders looking to develop their leadership style and effectiveness, preparing for executive director roles in the future. During her time on secondment, she is working at HSBC UK. This is the third in a series of blog posts in which Rhona plans to share her thoughts and insights to inspire discussion.

Blog #3


How would you feel if I asked you to speak up? It feels a bit odd, doesn’t it? But speaking up is a growing area of attention for many large organisations who are concerned that their people don’t feel able to be open in sharing their views, asking questions or challenging decisions. In my role at HSBC UK I’ve been set a brief to review the speak-up culture and develop an improved approach where speaking up becomes part of the cultural DNA.    

Blowing the whistle

Speaking up isn’t all about whistleblowing. I’m pretty sure the Board of most organisations, both public and private, would prefer to know what’s going on in their organisation without reading about it on the front page of a paper. Employees turn to whistleblowing as a last resort, and often after the damage has been done.  It makes sense that we should all be able to speak up freely at work: it is good for the organisation in avoiding mistakes and adapting to change; and good for our wellbeing and job satisfaction. However, it’s not as simple as it sounds. According to research by Ethical Systems [1] most people don’t speak up at work when they see unethical behaviour, and the two main reasons for this are fear of consequence, and the feeling that it won’t make any difference. This means that for most of us, when considering speaking up about something at work, we are balancing whether the benefits to the organisation outweigh any personal risk to our job or reputation.  

Safety at work

A study in the Harvard Business Review by James Detert & Amy Edmondson (2007)[2], found that feeling safe within an organisation was more important than formal speak up systems such as hotlines and suggestion boxes. The way to create safety in speaking up is to normalise it, to remove the risks and make it part of everyday life. HSBC’s values are ‘dependable, open and connected’, which forms a great bedrock to enabling a speak up culture. Acting with ‘courageous integrity’ is also explained and discussed at induction workshops for all new starters, and forming habits such as asking for and giving feedback starts on day one. At a recent team meeting our Director shared their 360 feedback and we had an open discussion about what it said. I commented at the time that I thought this was brave, but in fact it’s something I’m now committed to doing myself when I return to the NHS. Role-modelling is important in speaking up. Sharing our own stories of voicing concerns and what the outcome was will help remove some of the fear we’ve created around this area of our working lives.    

Speak Up? What about Listen Up?

In order to speak up effectively, someone has to listen. October has been Speak Up month across the NHS in England to increase awareness of how staff can raise concerns at work.  Freedom to Speak Up guardians (FTSU) were introduced across NHS trusts following the events at Mid-Staffordshire Trust and recommendations from Sir Robert Francis’ Freedom to Speak Up Report[3]. FTSU guardians have a role in raising the profile of speaking up, supporting staff with issues, ensuring they are actioned, and that their outcomes are shared across the organisation. Crucially they must have regular access to the CEO or a senior executive to escalate or feedback on issues within the organisation. Although the system of FTSU guardians is still relatively new within the NHS, it is proving to be effective in highlighting issues, with several case studies available to read on the NHS Employers website[4].  I’ve had lots of interest in FTSU guardians from my colleagues at HSBC and I’m planning to pilot a scheme based on the NHS approach before the end of my secondment. This week I’ve also been sharing my learning from the NHS and my experiences at HSBC with the Banking Standards Board (BSB), an independent body set up by the financial services industry to improve standards of behaviour and competence. The BSB is increasingly interested in cross-sector learning, and tellingly they have already introduced their own speak up guardian following what they’d learned about the NHS scheme. 

Becoming cultural DNA

Most organisations run regular employee surveys as a way of getting feedback. As a manager, I’ve often sat in front of staff survey results and felt overwhelmed by what to do. Creating any sort of culture change is slow and difficult. However, learning more about speak up has highlighted to me the importance of keeping it simple. Making feedback an everyday habit, listening to people, acting on their concerns, and role-modelling will create an environment in which the benefits of speaking up are clear for all to see, and outweigh any potential risks. I hope that in my time at HSBC UK I am helping to raise the profile of this key issue, and can share what I’ve learned with my trust on my return in January.


[1] Ethical Systems (2017) Speak Up Culture: Designing Organizational Cultures that Encourage Employee Voice, available via https://www.ethicalsystems.org/sites/default/files/files/Speak%20Up%20Culture_Final.pdf [accessed 29 October 2018]

[2] Detert, J.R. and Edmondson, A.C. (2007) Why Employees Are Afraid to Speak, Harvard Business Review, May Issue

[3] Francis, R. (2015) Freedom to Speak Up – A review of whistleblowing in the NHS, available via http://freedomtospeakup.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/F2SU_web.pdf [accessed 29 October 2018]

[4] NHS Employers, Speak Up Month – October 2018, http://www.nhsemployers.org/news/2018/10/speak-up-month-october-2018 [last updated 1 October 2018]