With the new EU Whistleblower Protection Directive looming large, organizations across Europe are in the process of either re-evaluating their current internal reporting program or building one for the first time.
The biggest challenge for many, though – and ultimately the biggest measure of success – may not be complying with the new rules, but building a program that actually works.
Underpinning that goal is the issue of “trust”. Let’s not forget why the Directive is being introduced in the first place: to ensure that people are protected when they speak up, and therefore encouraged to report misconduct.
This then is really the challenge we face and the benchmark by which we should measure the success of our reporting programs – their adoption and acceptance as part of a positive company culture. There are three areas you’ll need to focus on to build trust among employees.
Three Pillars of Trust for Program Success
To build a successful reporting program and a “speak-up” culture that your employees embrace, you should focus on three central trust-building pillars: awareness, confidence and responsiveness.
Employees should know how to raise their concerns and file a report at any time
4 out of 5 employees do not know their company has a whistleblowing hotline – EY Fraud Survey, 2017
Though often overlooked, the obvious starting point is to make sure your employees know that they can report misconduct and how to do so. Let them know that there are (ideally) multiple reporting channels available to them, so they can communicate in whatever way makes them feel most comfortable. Indeed, communicating reporting channels to employees is a key requirement of the EU Whistleblower Protection Directive.
It’s important to show, too, that you understand reporting can be difficult and have a conversation about the reasons why people don’t report misconduct.
Creating a transparent program that people can put their faith into can be especially powerful. By enabling everyone in your organization to understand how reports are handled, investigations are conducted, and what follow-up actions may be taken, you will begin to establish trust and confidence in your program.
Don’t limit your awareness efforts to the reporting program’s existence alone, though. Help your employees to understand why the program exists. This can be tied to organizational or cultural goals (“we want to know what’s going wrong so we can fix it”) and even reference the rules you’re required to follow (“we take laws and regulations seriously”). Let them know that, as a company, you welcome the opportunity to uphold the law, protect your people and stakeholders, and do the right thing.
Your employees should feel safe and afforded a high degree of confidentiality
80% of workers do not report due to fear of legal consequences – EU Public Consultation on Whistleblowing, 2017
By doing all you can to raise awareness of your whistleblowing program and how your company will handle reports, you will begin to build trust among employees. You’ll need to take this a step further, as employees must feel confident that if they do speak up, they will be listened to and protected from retaliation – one of the biggest barriers to reporting in the first place. The EU Directive, along with other emerging whistleblowing laws around the world, have this consideration at their core.
Arguably the most important thing to address when it comes to building confidence in your reporting program is addressing privacy concerns and protecting the identity of reporters. Tackle this head-on with secure reporting and processes, highlighting the control measures in place to ensure confidentiality.
As with your awareness activities, transparency around the investigation process is key to getting employees on board. When designing and implementing your reporting program, bear in mind that it should be built to enable dialogue with the reporting person (even if they choose to remain anonymous).
Finally, embedding anti-retaliation controls – and enforcing them where retaliation does occur – will send out a strong message that those who speak up will be protected.
Every report should be investigated promptly, with appropriate action taken
35% of workers do not report as they believe no action will be taken – EU Public Consultation on Whistleblowing, 2017
The way in which a business responds to reports of misconduct will have a huge bearing on the success of the program. Employees must know that if they raise a potential issue, the organization will respond in an appropriate and timely manner, with action being taken where necessary.
Once again, the EU Directive includes provisions for this. It specifies that reports must be acknowledged within seven days and feedback provided within three months (or six months in exceptional circumstances).
Before, during and after any investigation, you will need to respond to any evidence of retaliation promptly and effectively. Remember that retaliation risks may not be limited to the reporting person and could also affect witnesses or other contributors to an investigation. Maintaining confidentiality and tracking retaliation are good ways to manage the risk. Randomized surveys can also be used to monitor potential retaliation and enable you to respond to any issues of concern.
Being responsive also means being adaptable and pursuing continuous program improvement. For this reason, it’s crucial you monitor and audit the program, regularly assessing its effectiveness and making improvements when needed. Capture management information to track program performance against benchmarks, but also identify trends for management focus. Remember, it’s not always necessarily about the numbers themselves, but about the story behind numbers that don’t fit the norm, buck the trend or simply invite further scrutiny.
A Conduit for Good
Remember that your whistleblowing program functions to protect your business from risk. Think of it as a “lightning rod” for potential misconduct. Attracting potentially harmful issues through a safe conduit, designed for the purpose, will allow people to direct their concerns to the right place and enable the organization to address highlighted risks in a structured and safe way.
By cultivating trust in your program, you can turn your whistleblowing channels into a true conduit for good.