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It's time to give whistleblowing the attention it deserves

By Giles Newman, Managing Director, International at NAVEX Global

January 18 2021 - Employees are an organisation's eyes and ears, and harnessing continuous feedback from them is one of the best ways to measure and nurture a positive culture. However, one fundamental channel in this communication - whistleblowing - is not being given enough attention. NAVEX Global's 2020 Regional Whistleblowing Hotline Benchmark Report revealed that European-headquartered organisations have the lowest overall whistleblowing reporting rate globally. This is concerning as reporters should be welcomed by businesses as a way of identifying sensitive issues, from harassment to ethical concerns, before they escalate. Changing perceptions of whistleblowing is the first step to rectifying this, and driving an open workplace culture.

HR leading the change

HR teams have a key role to play in challenging the notion that internal reporters are an inconvenience, and positioning them instead as assets to the business. Leading by example, HR can change the way the business as a whole approaches whistleblowing, chiefly by encouraging employees to speak up and by embracing a "listen up" approach.

With that in mind, HR teams should consider taking the following steps to strengthen their internal whistleblowing programmes:

1. Establish a zero tolerance policy for retaliation: Fear of retaliation is one of the main reasons why people do not raise workplace concerns. Reports of retaliation within European-headquartered organisations have increased by 22 percent since 2018, according to NAVEX Global. It's therefore critical that HR establishes a zero tolerance approach that encompasses not just those who report concerns, but also witnesses and falsely-implicated parties - and makes such policies known to all employees to increase confidence and trust in the whistleblowing process. This is particularly important whilst employees are working away from the workplace, as intimidation or victimisation can still exist within a remote working environment. New rules from the EU, which take effect from December 2021, will outlaw retaliation against whistleblowers and those who assist or support them - a move that will hopefully reverse current trends.

2. Partner with leadership: While HR and compliance teams can lead the change, true transformation begins with the CEO and their leadership team. The value of workplace whistleblowing should therefore be championed at senior level and cascaded to all teams. Managers should be trained to actively reinforce the notion that speaking up at work is a positive thing, and equipped with the skills to identify retaliation and put a stop to it.

3. Have a clear line of communication: According to NAVEX Global's 2020 report, it takes 83 days to close a whistleblowing case in Europe, the longest closure time among all regions globally. Reducing this time can be challenging, especially during the widespread shift to remote working, as gathering evidence is more difficult and may take longer. To ensure delays don't dissuade employees from reporting issues in the future, businesses' should keep internal reporters regularly updated. As pointed out by Ed Mills, Head of Employment, Travers Smith LLP, "businesses can become so embroiled with the investigation itself, that they almost forget about the individual who raised the complaint. This is a significant issue as a lack of regular updates breeds mistrust, frustration and can leave reporters feeling isolated - especially while they're working remotely". As such, it's important to keep an open channel of communication, reiterating to the employee that they were right to raise concerns and also offering counselling or other support, if appropriate.

4. Empower employees to speak up: Encouraging staff to speak up is becoming increasingly important in the context of the current socio-economic climate. Fears of being on ‘the list' for future redundancies, for example, can stop people from reporting if they are in an environment that does not welcome it. As such, organisations should create a culture where raising issues is not simply encouraged but expected. History has proven that when people feel empowered to speak out, they do. As Katharine James, CSMP®, Head of Governance in the Safety, Security and Resilience Department, BBC, explains: "You naturally see a peak in reports when the issue is being made public with reporters feeling an additional layer of protection within that momentum. We, and many other businesses, saw it with the #MeToo movement." This level of comfort and confidence in blowing the whistle should be present at all times, and not just when issues are topical in the news.

Changing perceptions of whistleblowing should be at the top of HR teams' agendas as we begin 2021. This will allow the organisation to have better insight into what's happening across the business, and, most importantly, give them the ability to do something about it. To start driving this shift, HR teams should listen to different teams and leaders to assess what has stopped people from raising workplace concerns in the past, and understand what needs to change. By creating an open and transparent communication channel that encourages employees to speak up, you can build trust, identify and address risks, and strengthen your workplace culture.

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