Many people are afraid to speak out when they discover wrongdoing or questionable behaviour in their workplaces for fear of the damage they may do to their careers and employment prospects since all too often they are often regarded as outcasts.
The recent high-profile revelations by whistleblowers in the Cambridge Analytica and Brexit campaign organisations have shown that, in these days of ubiquitous social media, those who were brave enough to speak out became the target of some high-profile abuse and attacks, some of them personal.
But if your business is one where a culture of speaking out is either frowned on or not encouraged it may well be missing out on information that could help it to improve not only its operations but also its values and reputation.
Make your business safe for whistleblowers
Employees are often in a better position to see when something is going wrong than its board members are.
So how can you ensure that you are alerted to behaviour or practices that could damage your business?
You need to make it clear that revelations of malpractice or ineptitude are welcomed and that your business culture is transparent and open to people being able to voice concerns in a responsible and effective manner.
Malpractice can cover a wide range of situations from bullying, theft, bribery, fraud and corruption to endangering people’s health and safety to misuse of company property as well as any attempts to conceal such misdeeds.
Ineptitude becomes a whistleblowing matter if it has an adverse impact on people and the business or if it relates to breaches of company policies.
It is therefore good practice to have a clearly-defined whistleblowing policy and to let everyone know it is safe to raise any concerns they might have and that allegations will be treated as having been made in good faith.
The policy should clearly state the procedures that should be followed when anyone identifies something that they feel ought to be reported. It should also set out the procedures for managers to deal with the matter and cover confidentiality and protection for everyone involved.
Confidentiality is an issue that is also covered by privacy law. Those making allegations should be encouraged to put their name on record although disclosure needs to be managed carefully. You should also identify an investigating director within your business with whom concerns can safely be raised.
If the whistleblower feels that they need it, it should be made clear that your business is happy for them to be accompanied by a trades union or other representative at all meetings and hearings.
The investigating director should be required to fully investigate the allegations and prepare a written report of the allegations, their findings and their recommendations, preferably with the involvement of your HR department.
The whistleblower must be kept informed of progress as should the person about whom allegations are made, especially if they are an employee.
If necessary, it may be appropriate to involve relevant outside authorities, such as the HSE or the company’s auditors and if necessary the police.
While the company culture should be one of trust such that employees who report a matter as a whistleblower should be believed, you should also be aware of their agenda. The investigation may reveal that the whistleblower is in fact the problem which is one reason why the investigations should be discreet and the confidentiality of all parties preserved. If a whistleblower does turn out to be the problem or they are using the procedure to pursue their own agenda then they should be dealt with under the company’s disciplinary procedure.
Whistleblowing is, however, essential when some people are wilfully blind to behaviour that ought to be addressed. An open and constructive approach to confronting and dealing with such behaviours is essential to a company’s values, culture and reputation.
A properly constructed whistleblower policy can encourage people to act in the best interests of your company and ultimately ensure your business reputation is not compromised.