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Tackling whistleblowing through employee engagement

16Jul Posted by Sermelo Features

Public exposure to whistleblowing has risen dramatically over the last few years. Far beyond the realms of Julian Assange and Edward Snowden, the international public have been drawn into a spate of corporate scandals. Issues have been widely ranging, covering such things as food safety, price fixing in the wholesale gas industry, phone hacking in the media, a gagging culture in the NHS, and ethical controversy within undercover policing. Hollywood is even in on the act, as the release of a Wiki-leaks movie comes out, and rumours abound of a screen adaptation on the Michael Woodford Olympus scandal.

Traditionally, public opinion around whistleblowing has had largely negative connotations. Yet recent cases are being met with an array of public curiosity and acknowledgement, and further prescribing a lack of public trust towards organisations, be they public or private. As a result, the perception of informers has changed from ‘snakes in the grass’ to ‘the eyes and ears of an organisation’ serving a public good (regardless of whether this is indeed their motive). Indeed, a study commissioned by Public Concern at Work found that there was an increasingly positive perception of whistle-blowers, with most media stories since 1998* being either positive or neutral.

While this might imply a new openness to disclosures within the workplace, and as such an increase in disclosures made, this is not the case. Despite a more positive perception of informers, employees are often reticent about speaking out. This is usually down to one or two, and often both of the following reasons: they don’t believe anything will be done about the issue or they believe that they will be negatively targeted by colleagues and/ or current and prospective employees. Indeed, Cathy James at LSE, highlights that the findings of Public Inquiries often conclude that workers have been either too scared to speak up or dissuaded from raising concerns because of a sense that nothing will be done.

Perhaps, the business sector might see this as a good thing, but it is actually far more likely to cause harm. Companies may prefer that employees use internal communication systems if they are uncomfortable with activities going on in their departments or the company, but if there is a lack of transparency within an organisation or culture of distrust and inaction to past grievances, employees will be more likely to discuss company failings externally leading to potential media and legal ramifications. To paraphrase Sunday Times journalist Hannah Prevett in her article ‘Blow whistles without fear’, if the majority of employees in an organisation feel unable to report an ethical breach, then there is a lack of trust to be found, and room for better communication.

The importance of conveying better communication about internal whistleblowing and is not just necessary from an ethical standpoint, but for a number of business reasons:

Brand image and attracting talent: increasing use of twitter, blogs and sites such as Glassdoor means that employees share a great deal more about their work culture and their concerns – this can impact on how future employees might view the company and impact (for the better or worse) whether a company gets the benefit of the doubt in times of crisis among stakeholders.

Vulnerability/ avoidance of fines: Companies need to stress the importance of maintaining and developing ‘a licence to operate’ and recognising the greater importance of supply chains, and the reputational risks these incur. In order to do this they need to encourage employees to scrutinise things that they may feel are questionable, to avoid the likes of the horsemeat scandal and the Bangladesh tragedy.

Financial Performance and reputational resilience: Studies carried out as far back as 1988 continue to demonstrate how "a strong corporate culture and ethics is a vital strategic key to survival and profitability" and that "sound values, purposes, and practices are the basis for long-range achievement".  Indeed, according to EIRIS, studies show that ethics-related news can influence between 0.5% and 3% of a company’s share price for better or worse.[i]

Better communication can refer to businesses introducing a ‘whistle-blowing’ policy, that ensures certain procedures are followed and in place. David Lewis, Professor of employment law at Middlesex University and convenor of International Whistleblowing Research Network believes this can be very successful: “If employers can create a positive culture by committing to a confidential reporting procedure which complies with good practice and can demonstrate that they value disclosures and will protect disclosers, there is no reason why internal whistleblowing should not work.”

A lot can be gained from having an effective employee engagement system in place that stresses the importance of transparency, feedback and openness. However, it is not just about having the policy in place. For example, when the same Public Concern at Work survey asked employees whether ‘your employer has a ‘whistleblowing’ policy’ in place, over 55% either said no or couldn’t answer. In fact, analysis has shown that even the presence of a ‘code of conduct’ does not correlate with actual behaviour in the company with what matters instead being the visibility of that code being enforced uniformly across the organization.[ii] It is, therefore, up to business executives and the upper levels of management to demonstrate this behaviour and policy throughout the organisation, to make sure that they are listening and be seen learning from past failures.

*Post the inception of the Public Interest Disclosure Act

[ii] Bad Apples, Bad Cases, and Bad Barrels: Meta-Analytic Evidence About Sources of Unethical Decisions at Work.  Kish-Gephart JJ, Harrison DA, Treviño LK. . J Appl Psychol. 2010 Jan;95(1):21


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