With the rollout of the EU Directive and relevant local regulations in the member states for the Protection of Whistleblowers, and more recently, the UK government’s announcement of a ‘failure to prevent’ fraud offence, organizations need to continue scrutinizing and updating their whistleblowing/speak-up policies and channels to ensure that they meet regulator expectations as well as maximizing opportunities to identify potential misconduct.

Posted In:

Organizations that to date have implemented whistleblowing mechanisms are better prepared to face the future, benefits include:

  • Addressing financial crime.
    Financial crime continues to remain a worldwide issue. The commission of fraud within organizations’ structures is on the rise, and whistleblowing represents an important mechanism to prevent and detect conduct of this nature.
  • Preserving reputation.
    Organizations with well-established whistleblowing systems demonstrate their willingness to combat corruption whilst enabling the organization to deal with issues promptly and discretely helping to reduce potential reputational damages.
  • Awareness.
    With most of workplace wrongdoing still being reported outside of formal reporting channels and thus from an organizational perspective may be viewed as “going unreported”, speaking up mechanisms can support the organization in identifying potential misconduct and raise awareness on issues that need to be addressed.
  • Crisis prevention.
    Whistleblowing/speak-up policies and processes can prepare organizations in advance to deal with possible issues raised. By setting up the ‘rules of the game’ this helps to ensure that issues will be contained within the organization and managed appropriately, rather than played out on a public platform.
  • Open culture.
    Robust speak-up policies are a key part of a good open culture in an organization, and an open culture has been identified as a crucial contributor to an organization having integrity.

However, the simple existence of regulatory–compliant whistleblowing/speak-up mechanisms does not guarantee their use. A recent case vividly illustrates this point, where the organization is facing several allegations of misconduct and claims of a ‘toxic culture’. Despite having implemented whistleblowing policies and an anonymous complaints process, the organization openly admits their insufficiency.

How can organizations create a culture of speak-up?

A culture that enables ‘speak-up’ is tied to a culture of psychological safety, defined by psychologist Amy Edmonson as a ‘shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking’[1]. In a psychologically safe work environment, employees believe that candor is welcome, and feel able to speak-up without fear of retaliation. However, a psychologically safe culture does not happen by default – it must be cultivated by an organization. But what does that look like? Key actions an organization can take include:

1. Tone and behavior from the top

Tone from the top is fundamental to creating a culture of speak-up: leaders must reiterate that the organization positively welcomes whistleblowing and will fairly and appropriately investigate concerns. However, it is not just what leaders say that counts but their day-in, day-out behavior. Leaders who listen to employee feedback and criticisms, act on suggestions, and respond to issues raised, are better able to foster trust that speaking up will not be futile.

2. Communication

In addition to tone from the top, it is important for organizations to reinforce their commitment to a strong whistleblowing culture through regular communications with all staff. This could look like: having a dedicated whistleblower day; a standing team meeting agenda item; a newsletter; posters; or sharing stories of good outcomes stemming from whistleblowing. Organizations should also have a dedicated intranet page on speak-up and whistleblowing. In individual cases of whistleblowing, it is important to keep whistleblowers as up-to-date as possible. Under the EU directive, feedback should, as far as legally possible and in the most comprehensive way possible, inform the whistleblower of what happened or what will happen as a result of their disclosure. Feeding back to the whistleblower also maintains their confidence in the process and provides an opportunity for them to report any retaliation.

3. Training

All employees should receive training on how concerns can be reported, who can blow the whistle, and the organization’s investigation process (including who will report a concern, and updates whistleblowers can expect to receive). Training should also cover rights to confidentiality vs anonymity, and how incidences of detriment to whistleblowers and any accused employees will be managed. Line managers should also receive targeted training on how to handle concerns correctly. This should include:

  • How to provide appropriate support to an employee, both whistleblower and alleged aggressor.
  • How to identify whistleblowing outside of official channels.
  • When and how to keep employees updated with the progress of the investigation into their concern.
  • How to assess a concern to determine the risk of detriment.
  • How to identify and protect employees from detriment.
4. Appointment of a ‘speak-up champion’ or appointed representative

It is good practice and in some instances a requirement, to have an appointed representative for speak-up and whistleblowing. Appointed reps should be senior management, preferably sitting on the board, and in most cases a Non-Exec Director.

5. Stress the organization’s commitment to reducing detriment

Minimizing detriment should be referenced throughout all training and communication materials. Training materials should include examples of detriment, and if appropriate, sanitized case studies. Doing this well is crucial for retaining the trust of all those involved in a good ‘speak-up’ culture.
Throughout the whistleblowing process, both the whistleblower and alleged aggressor should be consulted as to whether they have been subject to detriment (case triage, investigation, post investigation, closure). It is also good practice to check in on the involved parties periodically following closure of an investigation.

In short, organizations can have excellent whistleblowing mechanisms on paper, but can still fail if policies and procedures aren’t reinforced by a culture where employees feel safe and emboldened to speak-up. In other words, trust is key. Fundamentally, individuals will only speak truthfully if they trust their voice will be heard and responded to appropriately.

If you would like to discuss any of the issues raised in this article please contact Julia Arbery, Kristof Wabl or Lucy Cryan.

This article was co-authored with Chris Megone, Professor of Inter-Disciplinary Applied Ethics at the University of Leeds. We are grateful for his invaluable contributions to this article.  Furthermore, to Oscar Pineda Stabler from StoneTurn for his additional contributions to this piece.

[1] Psychological Safety and Learning Behavior in Work Teams, Amy Edmonson

About the Authors

Julia Arbery

Julia Arbery

Julia Arbery, a Partner with StoneTurn, has more than 15 years of experience in ethics and compliance. Specifically, she assists multinational corporations with the development and implementation of effective ethics […]

Read Bio

Lucy Cryan

Lucy Cryan, a Manager with StoneTurn, has a background in forensic accounting investigations, and dispute resolution. Over the course of her career, Lucy has conducted investigations into fraudulent activity, accounting […]

Read Bio