Whistleblowing systems: Common myths and how to overcome them

Encouraging people to come forward requires change in an organisation’s culture

“Opting out of providing robust whistleblowing systems is no longer an option. Many organisations still have no such systems. Those that do frequently report that they are not effective.”

“Opting out of providing robust whistleblowing systems is no longer an option. Many organisations still have no such systems. Those that do frequently report that they are not effective.”

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Whistleblowing is seldom out of the news these days, with scandals in some of Ireland’s most well-known organisations. Whistleblowing is not just a news story, though: it is a serious matter for any senior manager in Ireland.

Recent legislation – the Protected Disclosures Act 2014 – has changed the game. It increases protection for people who speak up about perceived wrongdoing.

It also means that employers who fail to have robust whistleblowing systems risk prosecution for failing to take whistleblowing seriously, for failing to ensure anonymity for people and for not protecting their whistleblowing employees.

Opting out of providing robust whistleblowing systems is no longer an option.

A significant gap exists. Many organisations still have no such systems. Those that do frequently report that they are not effective.

Many organisations don’t train their staff in how to use such protocols. This amounts to a dangerous “box-ticking” approach to whistleblowing systems. It leaves employers vulnerable.

Employees are even more at risk, and are aware of this. Research shows that more than 50 per cent of managers would prefer not speaking up about wrongdoing, out of concern for their reputation and career prospects. A lot of work needs to be done if speak-up systems are to be effective.

Recent research into “best practice” in whistleblowing systems, which I carried out with colleagues in the UK, studied international organisations in health, banking, engineering and government sectors. And we encountered three common myths.

Myth one: Encouraging disclosures is enough.

Speak-up systems succeed or fail based on whether they are trusted. But the nature of disclosure means it is difficult for even the most well-meaning employer to build this trust.

When someone makes a disclosure, they are waiting for signals that they have been taken seriously and their claim acted upon. However, because of legal limits employers are often prevented from sharing results of investigations.

And if the disclosure was anonymous, the organisation has no way to contact the person who made it.

Finally, if sanctions against an individual wrongdoer have been taken as a result of a disclosure, including a reprimand or a formal warning, these may not be visible to the discloser.

Limited or no feedback can leave the disclosing employee feeling worried that their concern was not taken seriously. They can mention concerns to colleagues and the speak-up system may then be perceived as not working.

What can companies or organisations do? They need to ensure they are communicating with absolute clarity on the next steps following a disclosure – what will happen and what feedback, if any, is possible .

Myth two: Senior management will be trusted to receive disclosures

Implementing even the most sophisticated system is no guarantee that they will be used. A recent study showed that fewer than 40 per cent of employees feel their senior managers support whistleblowing.

Strategies for building trust through being as responsive as possible, described above, are just not enough.

First, where the whistleblowing system is “housed” needs to be carefully considered. This can set the tone for whether it is trusted. For example, the bank we researched initially managed the process through its compliance department. However, employees perceived that group to have more of a “policing” function. That prompted the bank to rehouse the whistleblowing structure within human resources. Here it was seen as a system that ostensibly put the employee’s well-being first.

Second, offering an independent channel as part of the speak-up policy is essential. This could involve an external advice organisation that has no contractual obligation to report back to one’s senior management. Best practice is to offer this as part of a suite of options.

Third, clarity around anonymity and confidentiality is absolutely key as this represents one of the major barriers to people coming forward.

Finally, without the visible and sustained support of senior management, implementations of speak-up systems are likely to fail. Surprisingly, the more successful organisations do not ignore “irrelevant” disclosures, including those related to grievances or other minor matters. Rather these are used as opportunities to showcase responsiveness and build trust. The questions, the answers, and clarity around whether they qualified as disclosures are shared with all employees.

Myth three: Implementing robust speak-up systems will “solve” corruption

Encouraging people to come forward takes a lot of time and care, because it requires a genuine change in culture to build the trust required. In one multinational engineering firm, managers reported that it took 10 years after the initial system was implemented for a culture to emerge in which most people trusted management sufficiently to come forward. It takes time.

Prof Kate Kenny is professor in management and organisation studies at Queen’s University Belfast

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