How to make whistleblowing work

With whistleblowing hitting the headlines almost every month for the past year, this is an issue that businesses are taking increasingly seriously.

GoodCorporation invited Cathy James, CEO of Public Concern at Work to lead the debate on how to make whistleblowing work. According to Public Concern at Work, how an organisation deals with whistleblowing is a barometer of its ethical culture and values.

Some 25 leading organisation joined us for the discussion which highlighted the problems whistleblowing lines can present and looked at the different approaches businesses can take to make their whistleblowing system effective.

GoodCorporation has developed an evaluation Framework to help organisations manage the ways in which stakeholders are able to raise concerns without fear. For more information please visit the Whistleblowing section of our website.

Why whistleblowing is problematic

  • Culturally it still has connotations of betrayal, from ‘snitching’ at one level to ‘denunciations’ at the other.
  • There is still a gap between the promotion of whistleblowing and the protection of whistleblowers. In too many organisations, employees are scared to speak up for fear of personal reprisals. According to Public Concern at Work one third of employees would be too worried about reprisals to report wrongdoing.
  • There are competing risks – the risk of what might happen if you don’t speak out and what might happen if you do.
  • Nothing will be done. If staff feel that no one is listening, they are unlikely to report any malpractice or misconduct that they see. The investigation into the Zeebrugge ferry disaster revealed that staff reported concerns about ferries leaving ports with open doors five times, but the issue never got beyond middle management. In a recent Public Concern at Work survey, three quarters of employees say that nothing is done when an issue is raised.
  • Speaking out is difficult, especially in a culture where this is not promoted or even actively discouraged.
  • Serious whistleblowing concerns can get tied up with employment grievances.
  • A ‘one size fits all’ approach is not possible. Companies operating in different international markets need to take local legislation, employee protection and data protection rules into account. According to Transparency International, the UK is one of only four EU countries with robust legislation in place for the protection of whistleblowers. Tailoring an approach for different markets can be time consuming.
  • Anonymity vs. confidentiality. Anonymous reporting can make it harder for an organisation to get to the root of a problem and resolve the issue successfully. However, in certain circumstances, anonymity may be required by law or be the most appropriate approach. Knowing which approach to take and when can present problems.
  • Reporting can be problematic and misleading – a company that reports a high number of calls may look worse than one with only a few, whereas the company reporting only a few calls may have a culture that stifles speak up and is in fact at far greater risk.
  • Providing feedback to those that raise concerns can be a challenge. Companies need to balance the way they demonstrate that something has been done, while also protecting the privacy of the individual that may have been guilty of malpractice or wrongdoing.

How can businesses make whistleblowing work?

  • Whistleblowing is most effective when it operates in an open-door culture that actively encourages staff to report concerns. In these organisations, problems are likely to be raised earlier and addressed, reducing the need to resort to a hotline at all. Not only does this create an environment where problems are dealt with before they become potentially damaging risks, it reduces the association with denunciation, making the practice more acceptable. In the best organisations, blowing the whistle is the last port of call.
  • Tone from the top is vital. Senior management must take overall responsibility for ensuring that an open and ethical culture is embedded throughout the organisation.
  • Communication is also essential. Organisations must ensure that all stakeholders are aware of the processes for raising concerns. In particular, they must ensure that staff will be protected, confidentiality respected and that reprisals will not be tolerated.
  • Sanctions must be applied to anyone failing to protect employees who blow the whistle.
  • Where anonymous reporting is allowed, organisations must make it clear how these reports will be handled and how this might differ from attributed, confidential reporting.
  • Companies must be seen to listen and to act when concerns are raised. According to Public Concern at Work there is a critical gap between the number of times a person will report a problem before they give up (1-2 times) and the number of times on average a company receives a report before it acts (3-4 times). Being seen to act appropriately when concerns are raised is key to encouraging staff to raise concerns.
  • Effective training must also be implemented which includes details of how staff will be protected and how they will be kept informed of the outcome, as far as is possible, as well as how to report a concern. Employees need to know and understand that they may not always hear the full details of the outcome, if to do so would breach the privacy of other employees. This is most easily achieved in an organisation with a strong ethical culture and where trust in the senior management is high.
  • Separating employment grievances from whistleblowing concerns can be a challenge. Organisations should start by having a clear policy that covers the raising and handling of employee grievances, with training for staff to help differentiate between such grievances and misconduct concerns. Training should make it clear that the whistleblowing line is for raising concerns about danger, risk, malpractice or wrong doing that affects others.
  • It is also essential to have the right people managing these systems, to ensure they are really effective. Any time a hand is raised, the issue must be dealt with carefully and with respect.
  • Reward for speak up, such as the system in the States can be problematic. While it is unlikely to be introduced in the UK for the foreseeable future, companies could consider discretionary rather than mandatory rewards as a way of thanking individuals for raising concerns. This could be done via the appraisal or bonus system.
  • Companies should include information about the effectiveness of their whistleblowing approach in their annual report. Internal reports to the senior management should be used to report on the detail of what was raised and how it was dealt with.
  • Regulators also need to take a more proactive look at how organisations encourage and handle the reporting of concerns. If whistleblowing really is a barometer of ethical and cultural values, understanding how this is approached is clearly an essential weapon in the regulator’s armoury.