Whistleblowing policies must be built with employee support, good communication, and company culture in mind.
By Simon Kent
The mere idea of whistleblowing can be enough to send a chill down an HR director’s spine. The phrase is usually associated with business misdemeanours, brought to light through the press, which haven’t been addressed properly by the company itself. This can range from failing to follow compliant business practices to the mistreatment or exploitation of employees. Regardless of whether the company is aware of the practice, a whistleblower generally spells bad news.
A survey from specialist whistleblowing and compliance services provider Safecall has found that there’s a low level of awareness of these policies and general trust among employees. The data suggests that whilst the majority of HR professionals (57%) in the private and public sector believe their employees are actively encouraged to speak up about wrongdoing and an additional 36% state that employees are “aware” they can report wrongdoing, there is still a good proportion of employees who don’t know what to do if they discover something questionable in the workplace.
Not having such a policy in place may already indicate malpractice and at least bad press for a company. An EU Directive implemented at the end of 2021 brought more responsibility for companies in this area. At the same time, industry sector (particularly finance), company size, and the country where business is being carried out may also trigger the need for an official policy.
Melanie Adams, solicitor at Lexis Nexis, also notes that there is a crossover between an employer‘s whistleblowing policy and its anti-bribery/corruption, gifts/hospitality, and tax evasion facilitation prevention policies. In short, getting this line of communication in place can help organisations meet compliance and legal requirements in other areas.
“Employers increasingly recognise that their workers are often invaluable eyes and ears, and that the information workers uncover could prevent wrongdoing [from] occurring, in turn, preventing reputational damage for the organisation,” she says.
However, whistleblowing policies can offer organisations more than just a tick in the compliance box and a safe route by which employees can report their concerns. “It can be positive and doesn’t need to be dramatic,” says Greg Ogle, operational excellence manager at Safecall. “The EU Directive has changed people’s opinions. It’s reinforced that whistleblowing is not necessarily a bad thing. Companies now realise that the risks of not knowing something is happening are bigger, so this is an opportunity to fix things before they spiral out of control,” he says.
Bukola Bayo-Yusuf, HR director of a FTSE company, is adamant that despite the complex issues the whistleblowing polices are intended to address, the procedure itself should be straightforward and easily understood by those for whom it is intended.
“A good whistleblowing policy is rooted in one thing—clarity,” she says. “The policy needs to clearly define who a whistleblower is as well as the kind of whistleblower reports or concerns that are covered by whistleblower protection legislation.”
At the same time, Bayo-Yusuf thinks whistleblowing policies should align with other routes employees use to make their voices heard, enabling them to understand which route is appropriate for their particular issue. “The policy also needs to reflect clearly what it does not cover,” she explains, “for example, reports of personal grievances such as harassment or bullying.”
There is a case here for ensuring the reporting option offered to employees matches the need for communication and that, in turn, ties in with ensuring the business generally has a good culture which values, respects, and supports all employees.
Ogle also makes clear how a good whistleblowing policy reflects good communication and a positive culture in general. “We think the more communication you have with a person the better,” he says.
He describes Safecall’s independently provided whistleblowing service as a third line of defence. The idea being there should already be multiple options for employees to raise concerns internally before resorting to their phone line. But whilst employees may feel able to raise some issues with line managers and HR directly, there may be instances where grievances are particularly sensitive or require another layer of confidentiality that cannot be afforded any other way.
In addition to providing a safe channel by which individuals can raise concerns, Ogle also notes that companies should make other kinds of support accessible for individuals who feel the need to report. It takes a level of bravery to make and complete a call to a whistleblowing channel and whilst Safecall does not provide their own resources in this area, they do challenge the businesses they work with to offer mental health support for those who are making their voice heard.
“Making a call is a massive step to take and there may have been weeks of build-up before they do it,” he says. “We can provide a safe space where they can voice their concerns, but the organisation needs to be ready to support them as well.”
Adams also advocates specific support for whistleblowers as they make and progress their complaints, citing mentoring schemes as a good option.
Bayo-Yusuf emphasises the need to manage employee expectations throughout the process, both in terms of what the whistleblowing channel is for and outlining what can and cannot be communicated back to the whistleblower following a full investigation.
“Your policy needs to outline the organisation’s legal obligations regarding reporting procedures and clearly show the numerous internal channel options as well as how they have been made safe and secure,” she says.
There are diverse options for HR to provide appropriate lines of communications catering to the diverse circumstances under which an employee may wish to make a complaint.
In whatever way these processes work, the importance of confidentiality and respecting the action of the employee is paramount. Without that firm grounding, any route will not just be unused, but could be viewed by employees as a cynical way to control feedback and consequently amplify a grievance.
As Bayo-Yusuf notes, “Ultimately, an effective whistleblower policy can only succeed if employees are aware of it, are clear on what to do and feel it can be trusted.”