By Daniel Vaknine, Partner, Visslan
Many believe that whistleblowers mainly exist in huge corporations or government agencies. The fact is however that the majority of all whistleblower cases are never reported in the media as they are resolved internally.
As a Compliance Manager, you’re at the centre of attention for your organization’s whistleblowing schemes, and as more and more companies and organizations implement whistleblowing functions (due to e.g. new regulations such as the EU Whistleblowing Directive), many turn out to lack performance. Therefore, here are six tips to optimize your whistleblowing function, whether you already have one or not.
1. Long-term planning
Instead of constantly putting out fires, it is better to plan for the long term. Don’t rush the process of ensuring that the entire flow from report to investigation and conclusion works as expected.
It is also a good idea to ensure that functionality that is not needed at the moment but that may be needed in the future can be implemented without major difficulties or significantly increased costs, for example, for company groups whose legal entities will exceed 250 employees within a few years since sharing whistleblowing functions within companies of a group can be more difficult than expected.
The same applies if you, as an organization, are currently active only in countries without strict whistleblowing regulations but plan to expand to several countries with such in the future. Although the EU Whistleblowing Directive sets a basic level, some countries in Europe may choose to adopt slightly different rules. For this reason, it is a good idea to ensure that it is possible to expand and change relevant functions to suit the needs of different countries.
2. Be open to feedback
When implementing a whistleblowing function, it is important to be open to feedback. It is easy to think that you have covered all possible scenarios before launch, but it can turn out very differently in practice.
You’re therefore recommended to be open to feedback and use thoughts from your own employees to make the function as good as possible within the organization. For example:
- Is the whistleblower left in the dark about the progress of a report? Implement more regular feedback times than the legal requirement.
- Do employees say it’s “too complicated” to report something? Review the process to see if anything can be done differently. Consider changing the structure or reporting tool.
These are common types of feedback to encounter after implementing whistleblowing within an organization. With the help of feedback, it becomes much easier to detect any shortcomings and cover up possible gaps in the whistleblowing policy, as well as in reporting, feedback, and investigation.
3. Teach all employees how to detect irregularities
Educate your staff on the red flags that can help detect fraud or other irregularities. Changes in lifestyle, signs of drug abuse, gambling, “gifts” from suppliers, or a refusal to take vacations are all subtle indicators that something may be wrong. Team members should be trained in situations that could herald disaster, and the earlier a fraud is detected, the less damage to the company – both financially and reputationally.
If all employees are trained in spotting problems, chances to stop any problems before they escalate are significantly improved. This does of course not mean that the organization will be protected from all irregularities, but it reduces the risk of it happening.
4. Clear protections against retaliation
There is no point in having a whistleblowing function if retaliation is tolerated in any way. These include social exclusion, demotions, or harassment. It is critical that the organization implements a zero-tolerance policy for retaliation and actively works to enforce it.
If an employee has to worry about retaliation, the risk that they will dare to report something that they see a manager or other person in a senior role doing is reduced. It is therefore important to implement strong protections against retaliation and to make this known to employees.
Anonymity can be extra reassuring for employees who don’t feel completely comfortable with reporting, which is why anonymous reporting for whistleblowing is almost always to be preferred over confidential reporting
5. Be clear about the organization’s values and ethical rules
Reiterate your ideals and ethics. By doing this, you convey to your staff that you value integrity, honesty, and teamwork. According to research, ethical companies are more successful than other companies, not least in terms of profitability.
It can be good to regularly communicate the organization’s values with the employees to remind them of what applies and reinforce the values. Common methods are to hold exercises in groups, send out short training courses via email where the employees answer a quiz, or simply hand out brochures with information. Some organizations choose to develop values together with their employees. The exact method is not the most important thing, what matters is that values and ethical rules are communicated and repeated.
6. Communicate openly about whistleblowing
The chance that a person dares to blow the whistle depends largely on the company’s attitude toward whistleblowing. For example, if all managers sigh loudly and talk about whistleblowing in a negative way and that it is an “unnecessary requirement”, it can have negative consequences on the employees’ perception of whistleblowing.
Some managers consider whistleblowing and requirements for the implementation of whistleblowing functions to be unnecessary, often because “We already have such an open culture”. Of course, it is understandable that many do not need more to think about, but if managers’ attitude is that “whistleblowing is unnecessary” and this is picked up by the employees, it can significantly damage your whistleblowing function. As little as a sigh at the launch can be noted by the employees.
As a Compliance Manager, you are your company’s first line of defence, both in regards to following regulations and protecting the companies of irregularities, whether that means detecting ongoing irregularities or preventing them in the first place.
Everyone in the organisation may not approve or understand the value of having an effective internal whistleblowing function, but by for example planning long-term, listening to feedback, educating and communicating correctly, you, your company and society as a whole have a lot to gain.
Take this opportunity to refresh your whistleblowing function, make sure it lives up to current legislation and that your coworkers actually dare to use it – it can make more difference than you think.
Daniel Vaknine is CEO and Partner of Visslan, a Sweden-based whistleblowing solution to simplify whistleblowing and compliance with the new EU Whistleblowing Directive.