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  • Richard Bistrong

Whistleblowing: Awareness and Reluctance

Updated: Sep 8, 2020

The following guest post is authored by Philippa Foster Back CBE, Director Institute of Business Ethics, link here.

What stops employees from blowing the whistle? Employees are a first line of defence in protecting companies from the risks of misconduct and corruption. Effective speak up or whistleblowing hotlines are an element of good governance, and can act as an early warning system for an organisation seeking to understand the issues which are being faced by its employees. But while most large companies have a formal mechanism where concerns can be voiced, the 2015 Ethics at Work survey by the Institute of Business survey shows that employees do not have confidence in the system.

The IBE has conducted a triennial survey into employees’ views of ethics at work in Britain since 2005. The survey was widened in 2012 to include France, Germany, Italy and Spain, giving additional insights into ethics at work in continental Europe.

The survey reveals that, although employees are now more aware of elements of an ethics programme than ever before, nearly half of British employees (45%) are not willing to raise their concerns about misconduct.  Of those that did speak up, the proportion who say that they were not satisfied with the outcome has doubled. 61% of those who did speak up say they were dissatisfied with what happened next (compared with 30% in 2012).

Across continental Europe, the picture is equally pessimistic:  fewer of those aware of misconduct raised their concerns (down to 44% from 51% in 2012).  Among those aware of misconduct, the most common reason across continental Europe for not raising concerns is ‘not believing that corrective action would be taken’ (26%). The two most prominent reasons given why British employees did not raise their concerns of misconduct in 2015 are: feeling that it may jeopardise their job and not believing that corrective action would be taken.  No respondents said that they did not know who to contact.

In stark contrast to when this question was first asked in 2012, the majority of respondents are now not satisfied with the outcome when they raise their concerns of misconduct. This appears especially to be the case for women, younger employees, and employees in organisations with an unsupportive ethical culture where 71%, 79% and 97% respectively said that they were not satisfied with the outcome.

Why have a Speak Up policy and procedure?

It seems that, in the rush for compliance in having a whistleblowing helpline, organisations are failing to understand or communicate the reasons and benefits of having one, and why they support and encourage reports or concerns.  A speak up procedure:

  1. Protects the company  An effective Speak Up procedure encourages employees to discuss their concerns internally before going outside, either to the media or the regulator, and ultimately protects organisations from negative publicity. With developments in the internet and social networking sites, it is now easier than ever for employees to make their concerns public.  Most organisations may have been or will be the victim of a fraud or theft at the hands of their own employees; a mechanism for employees to speak up could help prevent such misconduct.   Furthermore, the value of whistleblowing is recognised with the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners reporting that it is one of the most effective ways to uncover fraud.

  2. Protects employees A Speak Up policy sends a strong message to all levels that bad practice will not be tolerated. It can also reassure employees that their concerns are important, and encourage problems to be brought to the attention of management from within the company.

Effective Speak Up policies and procedures can protect employees from health and safety issues or bullying and harassment from of other members of staff.  A working environment in which it is made clear that bullying, harassment and discrimination will not be tolerated and where cases are actively dealt with,  leads to fewer payouts at employment tribunals.  Another benefit could be that good employees are retained with increased staff morale and loyalty. Perhaps the most compelling reason is that it makes for a happier and more productive workforce if they believe and see that a culture of mutual trust exists.

  1. Protects customers and the public Customers and the public need to be protected from the effects of malpractice, for example, breaches of health and safety procedures or a failure to comply with hygiene standards.  Staff often have knowledge which if raised, may divert disasters when effective Speak Up procedures are in place.

Encouraging Speak Up

It is not enough to set up a phone line and hope for the best. In order to reap the benefits of an open culture, organisations need to ensure that their Speak Up procedures are effective. The biggest challenge is to make the speak up mechanism credible and safe.  Training managers and supervisors in how to handle concerns raised, ensuring that all concerns are acted upon, and any action (or inaction) reported back to the employee who raised a concern, can all help to encourage openness and discussions of ethical issues, before they become problems.

Employees need guidance to help them decide whether they need to raise a concern about something. A Code of Ethics which will help guide staff in their assessments of what is the ‘right thing to do’ in their workplace. Often gut instinct is enough, but sometimes behaviour can be so ingrained into ways of working as to not be considered unethical at all.  Offering employees decision-making tools, simple questions to help them test the ethics of a situation can also help:

  1. Is it legal? Ask if unsure.

  2. Would you be embarrassed if anyone found out about your decision?

  3. How would you feel if you read about it in the paper?

  4. Does it influence you in any way?

The IBE has developed a free App, the Say No toolkit, which provides the practical guidance needed to help to recognise a difficult situation and to do the right thing in response. The IBE Say No Toolkit has been designed to help employees have the confidence to make the right decision in situations which could lead to accusations of bribery.

The Toolkit targets common risk areas including when to accept a gift, when not to offer hospitality, what to say to avoid a facilitation payment and what to do if faced with a conflict of interest.  Employees can get the exact guidance they need because the Say No Toolkit can be tailored to reflect unique company policies and guidelines.

The fact that employees are aware of the mechanisms available to them to speak up, but have little confidence in the system,  may be a communication issue. If the  outcome of investigations is not fully communicated to the employee who made the call, then the word at the water cooler is that nothing is happening.

 But, this lack of communication  has a serious side effect. The result is a lack of confidence in the system, and mounting distrust in what the company says versus what it does. Employees take away the message that the motivation poster urging them to speak up is just window dressing, and this breeds cynicism, not just in the speak up process, but in the ethical values of the organisation itself.

If organisations have the courage to be open about the outcomes of raising ethical concerns, this can help give staff the confidence to share their concerns with each other and with the company.  It is time to recast the whistleblower as a hero – working for the good of the company, of colleagues and customers – and to be proud of those who have the moral courage to raise their concerns.

The 2015 IBE Ethics at Work survey is available from

The IBE Say No Toolkit is available here

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