How to Maintain a Successful Speaking Up Process

Getting Speaking Up Right

Most NHS Trusts are well into establishing their Speaking Up policies and Freedom to Speak Up Guardians. We thought we would offer some insight into building a successful Speaking Up process, along with a few things to avoid.

We hope you find these ideas useful – and if there is anything you would add, we’d love to hear your thoughts.

You can also download this resource so you can print and share with anyone who may find it useful.

The Foundations: 4 Key Principles


At the heart of any policy and system around Freedom to Speak Up should be a few basic principles.

1. Trust

2. Create Awareness

3. Connection

4. Action

1. Trust

Engender total trust:

  • If ever you break trust you have permanently undermined any speak up procedure or system. Not only is it wrong, it is self-defeating.
  • Make it clear what the rules on confidentiality are, and observe these absolutely.
  • Make it clear where responsibilities lie and observe this (for instance, we cannot overstate the horror we felt in April 2017 at the interference of the Barclays CEO when trying to identify a whistleblower).
  • Be clear about the “Ground Rules” of any speaking up process. What will be done with the information, who will it be shared with, how will it be used?
  • If there is ever any doubt, err on the side of caution.
  • Recognise that for some, anonymity has a place in enabling conversations.

2. Create Awareness


  • Any Speak Up procedures are only as good as the publicity they receive. It is key that staff are aware of how to access any speak up system – whether that is Freedom to Speak Up Guardians or otherwise. As part of this, it is important to remember that a problem can occur at any time during the year – not just after an initial burst of publicity. Maintaining that awareness is key.
  • Possible means of publicising include: links from your intranet to guidelines / any system, introductory and periodic emails, posters in staff areas, inclusion in staff handbook (if it is something people read and is updated as needed) and inclusion in on boarding processes. However you choose to publicise your procedures, don’t just put a procedure in place then forget about it.

3. Connection


  • If it is going to take some time to get to the bottom of things, keep them appraised of progress, even if that is to say you are still gathering information or looking into things. You may know that you are dealing with things as quickly as you can but your member of staff needs to know that as well. Remember, to have got this far this may be something that has been of major concern to the person raising it, and has been playing on their minds.
  • At some stage during the process, you may need to discuss with the person raising the concern how widely you can share details. Establishing a rapport and a clear understanding of the ground rules will be the key to a successful outcome.
  • Whoever contacts you may be anxious, frustrated or worried (for themselves or others). This could cause them to appear, reticent or a myriad of other reactions. Part of your function is to be able to accommodate this. Remember too that what someone says and what you hear can at times lose something in passing. As before, be willing to give people the benefit of the doubt. Likewise, you may have to give someone time to open up.
  • Different people can use language in different ways (and be responsive to different styles). Being responsible for empowering speaking up may need you to work hard at accommodating these differences.
  • Remember many people raising concerns could have a number of fears. As well as concerns about the underlying issue, which could itself involve aspects like patient safety, there may be concerns such as, “how will this affect my job?”, “how will affect my relationship with colleagues?”

4. Action


  • Learn from feedback: After fears that there will be repercussions for raising problems, one of the greatest inhibitors to staff raising concerns is a feeling that nothing will be done as a result. Make sure that your organisation takes the opportunity to learn from concerns or problems raised.
  • Make sure you capture and share learning with management: Ensuing that you capture appropriate information, follow it through and report back – to all relevant parties (within the bounds of confidentiality) is integral to successful outcomes. As part of the follow up process, step back and consider where the issue raised has wider consequences or application.
  • Demonstrate You Are Learning: Within the constraints of any confidentiality make sure learnings, and the benefits brought by them, are shared and celebrated. Not only will this have a positive impact on whoever has raised the initial concern, but you should find there is a ripple effect in the organisation.
  • Ensure You Understand: Make sure you have a means of understanding whether staff know of your speak up procedures, trust them and feel your organisation wants people to speak up and is learning from this. Don’t leave it for an annual check in the annual survey.

Things to Avoid

Over the past few months, we have been in contact with a number of Freedom to Speak Up or Whistleblowing guardians. We thought we would share some of our thoughts on things to avoid when cultivating a successful speaking up process.

Staff Not Knowing Who the Freedom to Speak Up Guardian Is

It’s important that staff know who this person is, and what their role is. We have been surprised at the number of organisations we have contacted, opening the conversation with, “Hello could I speak with Jo Bloggs” or “Hello could I speak to the Freedom to Speak Up Guardian” and been met with the response … “Sorry who is that and what do they do?”

Voicemail – No name given

Often we have been put through to a voicemail which does not say whose it is, or whether it will and can only be collected by a particular named person. No identification on the voicemail and no re-assurance message should be fixed.

Voicemail – Shared

On some occasions we have been put through to a shared voicemail – “Hi this phone is shared by [Mary] and [Tom].” We suggest that if a number is being given for a Freedom to Speak Up Guardian, it should only be accessible by that person.

Voicemail – Name on the Answer Message is not that of the Freedom to Speak Up Guardian

Another common problem is reaching voicemail and the name given on the voicemail is different from the person we were told we were being put through to. Again, if we are looking at instilling confidence in people such discrepancies are bound to give immediate concerns.

Messages on answer machine

We are not desperately keen on leaving a message on an answer machine as an option but if you must, make sure it is clear (a) whose the message box is (b) that they and only they will collect messages and (c) that they are password protected.

The Unrequested Callback

A couple of times with NHS Trusts, we have called and left no name or number and had a call back from Freedom to Speak Up Guardians. The call goes something like this:

“Hi, I have a missed call from you so was calling back”

Us: “Who is that?”

Caller: “The Freedom to Speak Up Guardian from ABC”

We thoroughly applaud diligence, and particularly in this job. It is fantastic to see people eager to ensure no person is left unable to raise a concern or problem. However, suppose we had been a whistleblower. We have possibly taken time out to call from outside the work environment, then the phone rings while we are back our work environment… That may not be a conversation we want in front of colleagues – possibly in front of the person about whom the conversation relates, or our boss (or maybe the two rolled together)!

The Ring Out

On a couple of occasions, we have tried a number over a dozen times with no answer. While with a phone line of an individual you cannot guarantee the person will always be there, by the stage of the tenth call, if we were looking for support, help, or a confidential conversation, we may have well have given up.


If you have read this far, it’s clear that you care about establishing and maintaining a successful Speaking Up process. By keeping these4 key principles of trust, awareness, connection and action at the centre, and by remaining aware of things to avoid, your process is sure to thrive. 

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