Freedom to speak up

10 May 2021      Ruth Turner, Membership Officer

What we can learn from the NHS about a speak-up culture, and what the pandemic has done to change the landscape?

The UHR annual conference gives us the opportunity to take time to listen, to reflect on the many challenges that we have all faced since March 2020, and to think about what has changed and how we take forward the positives that have emerged from a changed work environment, writes Bettina Rigg, Partner at Browne Jacobson.

Those who heard Matthew Syed’s brilliant plenary at the 2018 conference, “Don't be an organisation of know-it-alls, be an organisation of learn-it-alls” remains a stand-out quote for me. Those who have read his book ‘Black Box Thinking’, will recall his thought-provoking view that we cannot grow unless we are prepared to learn from our mistakes. An important element in this is to foster a culture where those mistakes are raised and explored, lessons learned are identified, and changes implemented. An important part of this culture is that staff are encouraged to speak up and are supported when they do. This goes far beyond simply having procedures for speaking up and raising concerns, and the protection given to whistleblowers by employment legislation. Policies are only as good as the culture that surrounds them, it is important for organisations to “listen up” when people speak up.

The NHS has a well-publicised focus on speaking up; referred to as F2SU (Freedom to Speak Up), this will be very familiar to those of you who have worked in the NHS previously. The structure has enabled centrally driven change over the past few years, with the appointment of F2SU Guardians supported by a National Guardian’s Office. There is a focus on gathering high-quality data e.g.

  • 73%+ cases of Speaking Up (2018/19)
  • 32%+, including 36% of cases being linked to bullying and harassment (2019/20).

The NHS experience of the impact of the pandemic on the Speak Up landscape is therefore of interest to all complex organisations, including universities, and especially to those who have a diverse range of stakeholders:

  • Speak Up concerns increased as the impact of the pandemic was felt
  • 34%+ in Speak Up concerns (Q1 2020/21)
  • a significant increase in the number of cases involving behavioural issues (e.g. bullying and harassment)
  • doubling of concerns raised with the Care Quality Commission (December 2020)

Whilst some of the complaints were specific to the health sector, the emerging Speak Up themes are as relevant to HE as they are to health:

  1. cultural (including bullying and harassment and ‘toxic cultures’)
  2. leadership (including whether leaders were ‘fit and proper persons’)
  3. equality, including:
  • impact of COVID-19 on BAME communities
  • Black Lives Matter
  • institutionalised racism
  • lack of leadership diversity.

These themes present some challenges in how institutions should respond. For example, how should you respond to a complaint which includes an allegation that your university is institutionally racist? What if the complaint is that the leadership lacks diversity or there has been a failure to comply with the Public Sector Equality Duty? These are complex issues that are worth deliberating at a strategic level and without the pressure of having received an actual complaint.

Another important aspect of responding to complaints is the development of a culture of ‘don’t hunt the whistleblower’. The temptation (human nature) is to ask “who said that…?”. Don’t be concerned about who said it but about what was said and why. Focus on the concerns raised, investigate those and demonstrate that you are an organisation keen to learn and not blame.

Finally, and returning to the wise words of Matthew Syed, think about the progress your institution is making towards becoming an organisation of learn-it-alls!

Bettina Rigg is a partner and Head of Higher Education at leading education law firm Browne Jacobson. For further information Bettina can be contacted on 07885 263839 or at

Join the team from Browne Jacobson at #UHR21: Refreshing HR

Thursday 13 May, 9.15am

“Race Equality Charter – A platform for advancing equality and tackling racism” with Bettina Rigg and Bridget Tatham (Partners at Browne Jacobson LLP), and Tracey Hulme (Director of Human Resources and Sukhvinder Singh (Race Equalty Lead) of the University of Wolverhampton

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