Although many whistleblower schemes encourage employees to report incidents, in reality many organisations are quite unprepared to respond appropriately when they receive a report from a whistleblower.
This lack of preparation usually reflects a critical lack of understanding of the whistleblower's concerns, as well as a lack of training for whistleblower managers on how to speak to whistleblowers.
Why a well-functioning whistleblower scheme is important
A deficient whistleblower scheme can result in whistleblowers completely abstaining from discussing and voicing their concerns with the whistleblower unit. Particularly if they find themselves being met by unsympathetic or judgmental compliance or HR staff who make excuses for the organisation's actions and practices. This can mean that the organisation misses out on the opportunity to identify and stop serious violations and critical issues, and in the extreme risks that the whistleblower takes other steps outside the organisation.
Several studies indicate that employees are increasingly experiencing retaliation in the wake of reporting critical incidents and other occurrences. This suggests that many organisations are not taking advantage of the information that whistleblowers can provide about potential wrongdoing of various kinds.
Of course, when organisations commit to an effective whistleblower scheme, it is a good idea to train the whistleblower unit in the handling of internal whistleblowers. In this way, you are always prepared to deal with potential whistleblowers. For example, an organisation could adopt best practice guidelines and ensure that whistleblower managers, who may be compliance, HR or legal staff, are trained in them. In the following, we go into what such guidelines might be and what they might entail.
Avoid misunderstandings about internal whistleblowers
It is important that there are no misunderstandings in whistleblower units about the role of the whistleblower or the motives behind a report. This can result in whistleblowers refraining from reporting complaints and concerns and may instead choose to make an external report, which can have damaging consequences for the organisation. For the same reason, it is extremely important to avoid misunderstandings about whistleblowing within the whistleblowing unit itself.
As mentioned above, a common misconception in whistleblowing units concerns the role of the whistleblower in the organisation. For example, there may be a perception that whistleblowers are senior employees in an organisation who possess detailed documentation of their concerns when reporting knowledge of critical issues. But as with so many things, anyone can be a whistleblower - and they can come from inside or outside the organisation. They may be current or former employees, customers, consultants, accountants or even competitors. So there are no real limits to who can be a whistleblower. Therefore, it is also important that whistleblower unit staff are adequately trained in who whistleblowers can potentially be in order to properly handle reports of knowledge and concerns - regardless of the whistleblower's role in relation to the organisation.
As mentioned, it is also a misconception that a credible whistleblower argues the case with evidence and documentation. However, it will often be the case that whistleblowers have neither the time nor the capacity to gather this documentation. Therefore, whistleblower managers need to be trained not to discredit potential whistleblowers on the basis of a lack of documentation. Indeed, even an incomplete report can be an important piece in the opening of an investigation. In other words, all whistleblower managers must be able to listen to the concerns and knowledge of any whistleblower without judgement.
The final misconception, which is very common in whistleblowing, concerns the whistleblower's motive, especially if doubts are raised as to whether the whistleblower is raising concerns on the basis of personal grievances or a possible prospect of personal gain. Indeed, in the vast majority of cases, the whistleblower will be motivated by the need to redress an injustice, which may relate to anything from billing to safety factors. All whistleblowing must be treated seriously because anyone, whatever their motive, could potentially be in possession of important and critical information. It is important that whistleblowing entities do not question the whistleblower's motive because it may defeat the objective of gathering as much critical information about the case as possible.
Understand the whistleblower's perspective
Reporting critical information can be difficult and challenging, and some whistleblowers may face retaliation in the workplace as a result. This can happen despite existing policies designed to protect whistleblowers from just this. When a whistleblower faces retaliation, not only does this affect him or her, but it also sends a signal and contributes to a culture in the workplace where employees risk retaliation and may therefore choose to keep knowledge of critical issues to themselves in the future.
Clear guidelines prohibiting retaliation should therefore be introduced. Staff in whistleblower units should also be trained to respond appropriately when whistleblowers express concerns about retaliation, as this is a real concern. Therefore, in order to bring the details to light, it is important to be able to understand the concern from the whistleblower's perspective.
Responsible staff in whistleblowing units need to be trained to communicate with whistleblowers in an appropriate way that encourages the whistleblower to share as many details as they can. This is particularly important given that many whistleblowers feel uncomfortable in situations where they have to share their knowledge of critical issues.
It is therefore important to communicate in a way that makes an often uncomfortable situation more comfortable and safe, so that the whistleblower feels comfortable sharing critical information.
For example, it is important to remember the following aspects:
- Take the whistleblowing seriously: In line with the above points, it is important to always take any whistleblowing seriously. This is the best starting point when meeting the potential whistleblower with openness and seriousness, because anyone can potentially be a whistleblower and raise criticism of internal matters.
- Speak the language of the whistleblower: Although it is not possible in all cases, it is a good idea to be on the same wavelength as the whistleblower regarding the content of the complaint. This is because sometimes the whistleblower's report may be about a specific subject and it may be important for the understanding and handling of the report that the whistleblower speaks the same language, i.e. that the whistleblower manager has experience and knowledge of the subject of the report.
- Never make excuses for the organisation: The purpose of a whistleblower scheme is precisely to acquire as much knowledge as possible about critical issues in the organisation in a safe and non-judgmental way. Not listening to the whistleblower's concerns or trying to downplay them can have incredibly negative consequences. Indeed, it usually takes a lot of courage to come forward with knowledge about critical internal issues.
- Be patient and do not rush the whistleblower: It is important to understand how much pressure whistleblowing can be. It is therefore important to remember that it can take time to establish a confidential and secure relationship with a compliance officer or whistleblower manager, where the whistleblower is also confident that their concerns will be taken seriously. Therefore, in many cases (which do not involve particularly critical urgent matters) it will be a sensible approach to be patient and possibly discuss the whistleblower's concerns on an ongoing basis.
- Showing sympathy and sensitivity: It is of course also important to show general sensitivity to the whistleblower. This means establishing a trusting relationship by, for example, being able to answer the whistleblower's questions.
- Expressing recognition and appreciation: It is important to express recognition and respect for the whistleblower and his or her courage to come forward with concerns. This can also help to establish trust and confidence. It also sends a signal that the organisation actually values whistleblowing.
Avoid discouraging reporting
Just as communication can encourage reporting as described above, so too can communication discourage reporting of knowledge about incidents and critical issues. It is important to avoid the following pitfalls:
- Pressuring the whistleblower to substantiate their concerns with evidence.
- Pressuring the whistleblower to reveal their identity to colleagues or management.
- Signalling that the whistleblower's concerns may be harmful to the organisation or the whistleblower themselves.
- Signalling scepticism or mistrust of the whistleblower and his or her motives.
Concluding thoughts and summary
A well-functioning internal whistleblower scheme can provide valuable insight into previously unknown problems and critical issues within an organisation. Therefore, a whistleblower scheme can contribute to proactively addressing problems and thus avoiding external investigations. In order to have a well-functioning internal whistleblowing system, it is essential that the whistleblowing unit is staffed by people who are adequately trained to carry out the task. This will ensure that the organisation is best prepared for whistleblowing.
To sum up, the following points are important to remember if you want a whistleblowing scheme to work well:
- Misunderstandings about the whistleblower's role and motives can lead to incomplete reports, which can ultimately lead to external investigations. Therefore, the whistleblower should be approached with openness and without prejudice.
- Whistleblowing entities should encourage potential whistleblowers to report knowledge of critical issues by being able to put themselves in their shoes.
- Strong communication skills in the dialogue with internal whistleblowers are the alpha omega of a well-functioning whistleblower scheme.
- Whistleblower units should avoid discouraging reporting by, for example, pressuring, judging or questioning the whistleblower and their motives.
Emilie Hartmann is a student and copywriter at Moxso, where she is a language nerd and always on the lookout for new and exciting topics to write about. She is currently doing her Master's in English, where she is primarily working in the fields of Creative Writing and Digital Humanities.View all posts by Emilie Hartmann