Making whistleblowing work

Whistleblowing. Speak-up. Ethics concerns. Whatever you call it, encouraging employees and other stakeholders to report concerns about misconduct and inappropriate behaviour is increasingly regarded as an essential component of effective risk management. A well-trusted and successfully embedded speak-up system can be one of the most efficient means of identifying risks and rectifying them before they escalate into a crisis. However, making whistleblowing work requires careful planning. This means understanding the culture of the organisation, identifying any barriers to speaking up that may exist and developing clear policies and procedures that will work for the organisation as a whole.

Barriers to whistleblowing

Before introducing a whistleblowing system, it is important to recognise and identify any potential impediments to speaking out. In some parts of the world, the concept of ‘blowing the whistle’ still has connotations of betrayal, from ‘snitching’ in some places to ‘denunciation’ in others. Moreover, fear and futility are regularly cited as the two main obstacles to using whistleblowing channels. GoodCorporation’s 2021 report on Ethical culture at work found that only 64% of UK workers felt able to raise concerns about ethical behaviour. According to the Institute of Business Ethics’ 2021 international Ethics at Work survey, over one-third of employees (34%) were prevented from speaking up about misconduct at work for fear of losing their positions. Businesses need to be mindful of this and take great care with the language they use to build trust and confidence in the speak-up system.

Managing confidentiality and anonymity

Managing confidentiality and anonymity in a whistleblowing system can be a real challenge, but they are essential building blocks for an effective speak up system.

Organisations should take all reasonable steps to maintain the confidentiality of a whistleblower and all related parties, where it is requested. This duty of confidentiality is increasingly being enshrined in whistleblowing laws, including through the EU whistleblowing directive.  

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 the most appropriate approach for the whistleblower. It is important that organisations treat anonymous reports with the same care and diligence that they show to concerns raised by named whistleblowers. They should make it clear how anonymous reports will be handled, what the expectations are of the whistleblower, and how subsequent communication with the anonymous party will take place.

Where workers feel properly protected and able to raise concerns without fear of retaliation or reprisal, anonymity rates should, in turn, go down. Companies are more likely to be able to operate a confidential hotline or, indeed, rely on reports being raised directly to line managers, compliance or HR teams as employees will have the necessary confidence to raise concerns knowing that they will be listened to and protected.

Creating a speak-up culture

Speaking out is difficult, especially in a culture where employees are either discouraged from expressing opinions or not listened to when they do. Facebook chose to ignore Frances Haugen when she first raised concerns internally that the company wasn’t backing up its public promises to address misinformation on the platform with sufficient internal resources. Similarly, BP engineers had raised concerns about Deepwater Horizon oil pipe casings long before the oil spill, but no action was taken. If staff feel that no one is listening, they are unlikely to report malpractice or misconduct they might see.

For some employees there will be competing risks: what might happen if you don’t speak out and what might happen if you do.

Overcoming these challenges involves creating the right culture. Whistleblowing is most effective when it operates in an open-door culture that actively encourages staff to report concerns. Many of the ingredients that contribute to a good speak-up culture are also the essential elements of an ethical workplace culture. This must be driven from the top of an organisation, with a management team committed to operating ethically and openly, supported by senior leaders who set out clear expectations of behaviour and actively encourage concerns about any form of misconduct to be raised.

As we explain in detail in the Experts Corner blog on the Integrity Line website, an ethical workplace culture will be one where there is mutual trust between managers and employees. This means building a senior management team that is trusted to act with integrity whilst also making it crystal clear that staff will always be supported to do the right thing. Creating such a culture enables staff to raise concerns in confidence, knowing they will be listened to and properly protected. This will ensure that 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 crises, it reduces any association with denunciation, making the practice more acceptable. In the best organisations, ‘blowing the whistle’ is the last port of call.

Building an effective whistleblowing system

So, what are the critical steps to building an effective whistleblowing system?  We have identified six key steps that any organisation should undertake when introducing a speak-up programme.

  • Design the speak-up policy before selecting an external whistleblowing software platform. This enables organisations to identify who the system is for, how it should be used, what will be reported and who is responsible for making it work. Consider whether a platform is needed that allows employees to ask questions about misconduct. This can help flush out risk areas not clearly covered in the Code of Conduct. Alternatively, a sophisticated case management system may be required to support risk management and ESG reporting requirements. First decide on the requirements, then select a platform to help deliver. When drafting a whistleblowing policy, use simple, reassuring language and emphasise confidentiality and non-retaliation.
  • Tone from the top is essential. Confidence will make or break a speak-up programme in an organisation. Send a clear message from senior management. Videos featuring senior executives could be used to promote the programme. Consider adding a CEO message to the introduction of the Code of Conduct to let employees hear directly from the executive team that they are doing the right thing by speaking up and will be both protected and supported.
  • Training, training, and more training. Training investigators to look after the interests of those who raise concerns and those about whom concerns are raised is not just important, in some countries, it’s a legal requirement. In addition, training line managers to know what to do if they receive a speak up disclosure and how to deal with employees who find themselves the subject of an investigation can have a significant impact on overall staff morale and wellbeing. A bad experience with speaking up can discourage employees (and managers) from utilising the speak-up process for future concerns – sending them straight to the regulators or the media next time! Training for all employees should include details of what types of misconduct can be reported through the speak-up channel, how employees will be protected, and how they will be kept informed of the outcome, as far as is possible. 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 individuals. This is most easily achieved in an organisation with a strong ethical culture and where trust in the senior management is high.
  • Communicate about the speak-up system regularly. Communicating and promoting speak-up systems requires constant work and commitment. Companies that do it well, work hard to reinforce speak-up messages. There are many platforms that can be used: the company website, the intranet, in poster campaigns, or webinars and tie-ins with other internal campaigns such as on bullying and harassment or “Ethics Day” events. These platforms should be used not just to disseminate information about the whistleblowing policy and how the process works, but also to show staff how reporting can effect change and prevent problems from escalating. Workers need to know that they will be listened to and that reporting concerns makes a difference.  This could involve sharing anonymised case histories that illustrate how the system works in practice and help to remove any barriers to whistleblowing.
  • Implement a speak-up case management system (CMS). A CMS that tracks data from all internal reporting mechanisms (health and safety, whistleblowing, human resources, etc.) can be a game changer for its ability to help identify “hot spots” in the business in real time. It is also a highly rated component of risk management/compliance programmes from the perspective of regulators. Whistleblowing platforms are becoming more sophisticated with these tools, producing a variety of data sets that offer valuable information. Increasingly this information is needed both internally for board reporting and externally to comply with the latest non-financial reporting requirements.
  • Stay on top of your data protection requirements. Whistleblowing and speak-up can be a minefield for data privacy, particularly as rules can vary across countries. Have clear policies in place for data collected, processed and retained as part of the speak-up programme. Look for ways to use anonymised data to support your longer-term risk management objectives without breaching data protection rules.

GoodCorporation offers a range of services to help companies embed successful whistleblowing systems. For more information, see our Whistleblowing page.