When it comes to corruption, silence is never golden: why encouraging speak-up is an essential component of any anti-bribery programme

Forewarned is forearmed, or so the saying goes, but ask any whistleblower if they were given a hero’s welcome as they raised the alarm and you’d think the opposite were true.  Many whistleblowers, Michael Woodford and Frances Haugen included, face actual or prospective persecution for raising concerns. Yet without these important revelations, many corruption scandals, from Airbus to Wirecard, would never be exposed.

Corruption affects all areas of society and costs billions, usually at the expense of the most vulnerable. It also increases the cost of business, adding to finance and operating costs, reducing operating profits and increasing the likelihood of fines for criminal liability. At a time when Governments across the world are struggling to respond and recover from Covid, the United Nations is using International Anti-Corruption Day (December 9) to urge anyone to speak up and say #NoToCorruption.

Regulators too have been moving to nudge corporates in the same direction, beginning with Sarbanes Oxley in 2002, which imposed criminal penalties for retaliation against whistleblowers. In 2019, the EU Whistleblowing Directive mandated every company or public body in the EU with over 250 employees to implement its own internal policy for whistleblowing. In the UK, The Financial Reporting Council recommends that all firms have their own internal whistleblowing procedures, considering this an essential component of good governance.

We have also seen regulators recognise the link between corruption prevention and speak-up. The UK government’s guidance on the Bribery Act considers the establishment of a secure, confidential and accessible speak-up system to be one of the key procedures necessary for the prevention of corruption. Since 2017, French companies have been required, under anti-bribery law Sapin II, to operate an internal whistleblowing system. France’s Parliament is also currently considering further measures to strengthen whistleblower protection and increase sanctions for retaliation and other abusive procedures.

Faced with growing demands from regulators and civil society alike, many businesses are therefore redoubling their efforts to ensure that effective whistleblowing systems are firmly established throughout all operations.

How to build an effective speak-up culture

Create the right culture. An open culture where discussion and frankness are encouraged is critical.  Whistleblowing is most effective when it operates within an open-door culture, where employees are actively encouraged to raise their concerns and can do so without fear. In such organisations, problems are likely to be aired earlier and can be addressed long before they develop into a crisis.

Lead from the top: Senior management are responsible for setting this tone, ensuring that an open and ethical culture is well embedded. A clear understanding of good corporate behaviour makes wrongdoing easy to spot. It is also far more likely to be reported and dealt with. When concerns are discussed openly, this also reduces the negative connotations of whistleblowing, making the notion of speaking up far more acceptable. Indeed, in the very best organisations, ‘blowing the whistle’ is the last port of call, operating only as a final backstop.

Be culturally sensitive: Whistleblowing and raising concerns are concepts that are received and understood in different ways in different countries. Sensitivity, tact and localisation are important elements of making a successful alert system. In some parts of the world, it is still almost impossible to get employees to call a hotline so developing local alternatives is important.

Invest in training: In addition to creating the right culture, companies need to ensure that the right training is given and made available through a range of different channels. Training should emphasise that staff are encouraged to raise issues with line managers (or a more senior manager if necessary), are empowered to blow the whistle when necessary, and can do so without fear of retaliation. It should also be made clear that the whistleblowing line is for raising concerns about danger, risk, malpractice or wrong-doing that affects others. It is also important to help employees distinguish between whistleblowing alerts and employee grievances, ensuring that employees know the right channels for raising a grievance, if needed.

Create Local champions: Whistleblowing systems are also more effective when they are championed and managed locally. All too often speak-up systems are seen as remote, head office activities which mean that employees are mistrustful and fearful about using them. The best systems are tailor-made to the needs of local markets. This can sometimes be as simple as getting the name right and using the appropriate local language. Whistleblowing can have a negative connotation – encouraging people to raise concerns, speak-up and challenge can often be much better fits with a global corporate culture than ‘blowing the whistle’.

Good communication is the cornerstone of an effective speak-up system

A whistleblowing policy should be aimed at all stakeholders and this should be reflected in the way it is promoted. Effective communication can often be overlooked. Most companies already include details of their alert lines in the employee handbook and make reference to the system in the employee induction process. It is also common to place posters and/or QR codes in key locations as well as ensure that the speak-up policy is published on the intranet.

However more can be done to embed best practice and build trust in the system.

Best practice for communicating whistleblowing programmes

The following eight steps represent GoodCorporation’s advice for effectively embedding a successful speak-up system.

1. Make a speak-up app available to staff. Where this is not possible, include a shortcut to the speak-up page on the employee intranet or PC home screen. It is useful to rotate this every few weeks to ensure ‘banner blindness’ doesn’t set in.

2. Ensure that speak-up is regularly mentioned in team meetings and included in follow-up notes.

3. To reinforce tone from the top the CEO introduction to the Code of Conduct should promote the speak up culture and process.

4. Tailor speak-up poster campaigns around issues being raised internally e.g. “Speak-up about bullying and harassment.”

5. Print details of the whistleblowing hotline on employee lanyards and ID cardholders.

6. Publish anonymised case histories and lessons learnt in internal communications.

Getting the culture, process, training and communication right may not be easy, but it is the best way to make a whistleblowing system work. It also means that businesses are more likely to find themselves addressing a problem rather than managing a crisis. See here for more details on GoodCorporation’s Whistleblowing services.