Whistleblowing is the term used when a worker passes on information concerning wrongdoing. It is also commonly referred to as blowing the whistle, speaking up or making a disclosure.
Your organisation should have a robust process in place for dealing with cases reported. Here are my top tips:
It concerns me when I hear statements such as “sort the wheat from the chaff” when talking about whistleblowing - it is often said that if a report does not fall under the category of whistleblowing (in the UK this would be a criminal offence such as fraud, H&S breaches, danger to the environment, the company breaking the law or a miscarriage of justice) then an investigation does not need to happen.
But, this is misleading and your organisation should have processes in place to refer the report on to ensure the report is reviewed and investigated.
The report signals you have an issue that should not be ignored. Whether that is people not knowing how to raise a grievance, not trusting your current processes, an issue with management behaviour, a disruptive employee, or malicious allegations –dismissing it because the appropriate channel was not used to report it does not solve the problem. I would suggest you funnel this into the relevant department and, most importantly, follow up on the outcome. Otherwise you risk discrediting your hotline and eroding trust amongst your people.
People who have something serious to report are often terrified. They fear that contacting the hotline could signal an end to their career. They do not want to be identified; they do not want to be mistreated. They could also implicate themselves in making a report. It is not uncommon for people to test the water by reporting something smaller first, to understand the process, to know whether they are safe to report something much more serious, or in the hope that by you investigating the smaller issue, you find the bigger issue.
Sometimes they won’t even need to test the water – if it is common knowledge that a colleague made a report complaining about a manager’s behaviour, or if a colleague confided that they made a report that was never even looked in do you think they will want to report what they know?
Take some time to plan your communication strategy. Too often, organisations I speak with about this have said it is tricky to conduct an investigation because they do not have an open line of communication. Whilst whistleblowing adds a layer of complexity, it doesn’t automatically mean you can’t communicate. Most hotlines have a method to communicate with a reporter. Whilst you have to go through them – or most likely, someone has to log in and post questions on an online portal, it is still an effective way to communicate.
My suggestion is that you respond as soon as possible with the detail of who is investigating the case, and what their contact details are. You can invite the reporter to make contact with them if they feel comfortable. You can also ask them to regularly check in for updates. The investigator, when ready, can use this portal to ask questions or clarify information. They can also provide a closure report.
Too often, the initial reaction is to try and find out who is making the allegation or there is a lack of confidentiality when it comes to investigations. This is often not malicious, but that does not matter. It completely undermines the process and the confidence your people will have in it. Keep details on a need-to-know basis and log when you do have to provide information and the justification for it.
You also need to have a think about how much information you provide back to a discloser about the results of the case – feedback is often that not enough information was provided back and they didn’t know the outcome, but this is a very hard thing to balance with the confidentiality any person under investigation is owed. Having a strategy around this and seeking advice before you have a case to deal with is helpful.
Take time to review the data and create regular reporting so you can look for ways your organisation can improve. You can often proactively spot problems – if you have reports of a certain kind, which are being reported globally – then you have a culture issue you need to address. If it is a specific area, perhaps you have a training need. What about the investigation response? If you continually shut investigations down because there is not enough information - then you are missing the chance to resolve these issues. Do you need to look at the communication strategy you have around advertising your hotline? Do you need to ask your hotline provider to ask specific questions to draw out more detail?
These are just some suggestions for small ways you can build trust in your whistleblowing programme. It is all too easy to just put the hotline in place – to tick that box.
Managing this process well and always looking to improve it, will ensure you are proactive in building a better culture and dealing with risk matters – after all, the whole point is to reduce potential losses, reputational damage and your chances of litigation as well as any detrimental impact on employee morale, productivity and engagement.
As always if you want to discuss this further please get in contact.