A fear-based culture can exist in the public and private sectors and affect both large and small enterprises. For those who have experienced it in the past, there may be memories of dreading going into the office, of a particularly bullying manager and of being scapegoated.

Any risk professional subject to overbearing and oppressive management will not be able to carry out their role to the best of their ability. And this is the fundamental point – a fear culture raises a firm’s exposures, if people are too scared to speak out, then high-risk behaviour simply continues unchecked. For many employees, this is a difficult issue to face up to and some may feel it is easier to simply leave.

Walking out the door may be tempting, but it is rarely a practical option. It could be for reasons of pay, an area of specialization or location, that someone may feel tied to their place of employment.

So, the real answer lies in tackling the root cause – and this is where risk managers can take a lead. So, how can a fear culture be recognized? These are just some of the symptoms: 

  • A far higher than average staff turnover, with many not feeling brave enough to explain why they are going.
  • Staff are afraid to speak out, line managers are yes men and women, agreeing with their seniors even if it is clear they are wrong.
  • Employees have little autonomy, they are micro-managed and any errors can result in that individual being humiliated.
  • Avoiding blame is the biggest priority.
  • It is considered acceptable that management on occasion shout at employees or speak in a way that could be viewed as demeaning.
  • Even where bad – i.e. non compliant – behavior is visible, there is no real determination to tackle it.
  • Promotion is given to those most likely to abide by the culture rather than those who may be more talented, but could also be challenging. 

Taking a stand 

If risk managers become aware that their organization has a culture of fear, what should they do about it? Firstly, they cannot simply hope it will go away, since, for example if they do not draw attention to a health and safety problem because they are afraid of the consequences, this could result in an HSE prosecution. Or equally, not reporting mis-selling practices because hitting targets is seen as the most important factor for the business could result in regulatory action. 

Make problems known 

Risk managers should insist people with concerns feel safe reporting them. They should also see if the fear culture is company-wide or if is only an issue within a particular division. If so, it could be a particular manager or director is the source. Exit interviews should be encouraged to see if examples of bullying or other unacceptable behaviour could be uncovered. 

It could be that risk managers will need to work with HR professionals and prepare evidence to take to the board. There will be no overnight solution, but those working at the senior levels may be unaware that parts of their operation are engaged in risky behaviour or are non-compliant because employees are too afraid to make this known. 

Encouraging openness 

Open meetings where staff can be listened to are helpful as are performance reviews where individuals can speak openly about management and culture – in these, the emphasis should be on systems, rather than judging the individual. If it is found that people are regularly struggling with particular parts of their roles or making errors, this should be addressed by providing relevant learning and development opportunities, rather than blaming them. 

It is well known now that company culture is on the regulatory radar and fear is one of the biggest reasons why a business can become dysfunctional, with performance negatively impacted. There may certainly be times when people have to work under pressure, or even have a frank exchange of words, but the dictatorial approach ultimately quashes productivity and from a risk perspective, must be consigned to history.