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Blowing away the misconceptions about whistleblowing

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(Image credit: Image Credit: StartupStockPhotos / Pixabay)

When you hear the term “whistleblowing” it may stir up memories of a few sensationalist headlines. However, as a process, it is unfairly characterized by the myths that surround it. Many organizations are still under the misguided impression that whistleblowers are ‘troublemakers’, or that whistleblowing is synonymous with a crisis. However, in reality, whistleblowers are the exact opposite and can actually help prevent situations escalating to the point of reputational damage.

With the right whistleblowing practices in place, this form of communication can act as an early warning system, shedding light on sensitive issues organizations may be unaware of and allowing them to be addressed early on. For example, they can highlight hidden, but extremely damaging people issues, like harassment. They can also bring visibility to bad workplace practices and breaches of laws or company policy, that may otherwise be less visible to those with the power to change things. Businesses would be well-advised to view reporters as valuable sources of insight and shift these negative perceptions, especially in Europe.

NAVEX Global’s 2020 Regional Whistleblowing Hotline Benchmark Report recently revealed that European organizations have the lowest overall whistleblowing reporting rate globally, with only 0.5 reports received for every 100 employees. This indicates that even among businesses with established reporting channels, engagement is limited. This is especially concerning considering the challenges the workforce is facing due to disruption brought about by the pandemic, and the increasing pressure on businesses to demonstrate they’re ethical, diverse and sustainable. It is vital businesses set up effective ‘speak-up’ practices to combat the current issues surrounding whistleblowing, especially as issues around reporting are likely to be exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Covid-19 causing communication concerns

Workers who go through the whistleblowing process, and have a negative experience, are likely to be discouraged from reporting a problem again. A contributing factor for this hesitation may be the length of time taken to investigate and resolve a case raised by a reporter. This is a particular challenge in Europe, where the median case closure time is 83 days and is slower than in any other region.

Worryingly, the fallout from the pandemic is likely to see the timeframe for case closures increase even further, due to the limitations of remote working and health-related absences. For example, in a sensitive matter, such as sexual misconduct, the investigator may still wish to conduct in-person interviews with all employees involved. If someone on that list has to isolate, these meetings will inevitably have to be delayed, or conducted remotely, bringing with it a whole set of new challenges. What’s more, with many people working outside of the office, gathering evidence is more challenging, and may take longer. The issue with any delay is that it can damage the reporters’ trust in the whistleblowing process. This is where communication is key when it comes to whistleblowing and report handling.

Communication is one of the best ways to ensure long closure times don’t breed mistrust and frustration. Keeping the reporter updated with what has happened with their report, and what will happen next, is crucial. This will help to avoid workers feeling isolated or ‘in the dark’ about their case, and significantly contributes to a better perception of whistleblowing as a process. It’s important to remember reporters are just people, with concerns and feelings, so it’s imperative to make them feel as comfortable and safe to report as possible. This also includes improving communication around the actual term “whistleblowing”, to dispel those negative connotations.

However, there are also positive reasons that may help explain why some case closure times may be longer - namely that investigations are increasingly being conducted in a more thorough way.

As Ed Mills, Head of Employment at Travers Smith LLP points out “Companies are now taking greater pains to: line up the right type of investigator, determine whether the case should be investigated externally, scour all systems for any relevant data, and factor regulatory angles – such as GDPR – into the process. What’s more, we’re in an increasingly complex world with more considerations and stakeholders than ever before. Now, when an issue is reported, there will be an internal investigation by the company, and, in parallel to this, an investigation by the regulator - for example, the FCA and PRA in the financial services industry. These bodies will be scrumptiously interested in both the underlying issue under consideration but also how the investigation is conducted. As such, they may suggest additional avenues of inquiry that will build time and complexity into the process, but will need to be factored in by the business to keep the regulator on-side. All these measures strengthen the investigation, but also act as delaying factors.”

To prevent case times drifting during forensic investigations, businesses should adopt more rigorous case management, including outlining a scope of work with indicative time frames. To keep this on track, it’s essential that the individual, or group, who will be in charge of this process is clearly established from the outset. Something that is often overlooked in SMEs who are less familiar with whistleblowing cases. Again, communication is key in this, to ensure all parties are clear on why it is taking as long as it is, and ensuring they feel comfortable with the process.

Katharine James, CSMP®, a Senior Leader in the BBC and currently the Head of Governance in the Safety, Security and Resilience Department has found success investing in a completely transparent policy around whistleblowing. “Communication is key when it comes to dealing with reports. Some reports can be hugely complex. At the BBC we have people working globally, so from Nairobi to Afghanistan to the UK office, we have made sure that we are constantly communicating, to everyone, regarding the resources that are in place for them to report. This also includes communication around the actual term ‘whistleblowing’ which can have some negative connotations, particularly within our International bureaus.”

Katherine and her team have also made sure everyone at the BBC is aware of the organization’s zero tolerance policy on retaliation, which has helped increase confidence in the process. Communication about a case is imperative, but with such low whistleblowing rates in Europe, businesses need to assess the barriers to reporting that are putting employees off in the first place.

Barriers to blowing the whistle

There are many reasons why employees may feel apprehensive about reporting. Whether they’re unsure of how to report, or fearful of retaliation, it’s imperative businesses understand the concerns that potential reporters may have. Equally, they must clearly communicate how they plan to address these issues, if they want to capture and leverage their employees’ vital insights.

Combating retaliation needs to be a priority, especially given the NAVEX Global report  shows reports of retaliation have increased by 22 percent in Europe since 2018. The current economic environment could exacerbate this concern, as workers may worry that speaking up will increase their chances of being included in future cuts or hurt their career progression.

In responding to this challenge, organizations should include strategies for identifying cases of retaliation in the current climate. Certain types of retaliation – such as physical violence or exclusion from social events – are less likely to happen in the remote working environment. However, it’s likely whistleblowers believe retaliation could still happen in an underhanded and less provable way. These tactics will not only be making reporters nervous while working remotely but could also create a sense of worry about returning to the office environment.

To tackle this, business leaders must publicly acknowledge that they will not tolerate these or any other forms of retaliation. Furthermore, management should be given clear guidance on how to identify retaliation, before it damages people’s trust in whistleblowing. Businesses should aim to implement empowering policies that create a culture where speaking up is not only encouraged but expected. To facilitate this, managers need to be trained to be more receptive and reassure employees that they are safe in highlighting issues.

Changes in whistleblowing law

Although the UK will not have the same legislation post-Brexit, it will still apply to UK-headquartered organizations with workers in EU member states. For those without European operations, promoting this culture of speaking up is still imperative. Businesses that create programs to support and actively embrace whistleblowing will reap the benefits, and contribute to tackling the damaging effects of whistleblower retaliation.

Having an established process that facilitates and encourages reporting will create a more supportive culture and strengthen businesses’ risk and compliance management strategies. However, evolving legislation may ultimately force organizations that are yet to realize the benefits of whistleblowing to change their approach. The EU Whistleblowing Directive, which protects whistleblowers in EU member states, will come into effect in 2021. This legislation is a step forward because it will require organizations of virtually every size and shape to implement meaningful whistleblowing procedures, and adopt protective measures for those who do speak up.

Embracing the benefits of whistleblowing

In the meantime, organizations should consider how to better utilize their employees as their eyes and ears on the ground. After all, whistleblowing provides organizations with insight into what’s happening, and, most importantly, gives them the ability to do something about it. Businesses must assess whether they’re giving whistleblowing the attention it deserves; gathering an understanding on how comfortable employees feel with the idea of speaking up, and what has stopped them from doing so before. Ultimately, by embracing, instead of dissuading reports, businesses will only benefit; from learning more about the workforce, to solving critical issues before they can damage the company’s culture and reputation. This year, businesses must blow away the misconceptions about whistleblowing to embrace it as the valuable asset it is.

Giles Newman, Managing Director, International, NAVEX Global

Giles Newman is the Managing Director, International, at NAVEX Global.