World Whistleblowers Day was created in 2019 to raise global public awareness in combating corruption and to highlight the importance of calling out wrongdoing. For Protect, the UK’s Whistleblowing charity, the particular focus for 2021 is on whistleblower wellbeing and creating psychologically safe spaces to speak up.
Recent events around the world have reminded us that the greatest challenges cannot be solved unless wrongdoing is called out and the truth exposed. Openness, transparency, respect and integrity are key in all organisations and whistleblowers regularly play a key part in helping create a safer workplace. But all too often the very term brings negative connotations. On this World Whistleblowers Day, Partner and General Counsel Beth Hale and Associate Naomi Latham provide some practical tips for employers on how to foster a transparent and open culture in which people feel empowered to speak up.
What can employers do?
Accessible and confidential communication channels are a vital first step to encouraging reporting of wrongdoing. Organisations should consider appointing whistleblowing champions, look to encourage self-reporting and seek to protect those who do speak up from retaliation.
By understanding the importance of whistleblowers, employers can learn to view the actions of those who blow the whistle as helpful rather than problematic. Whilst having good governance and policies in place is a good place to start, employers must go further by providing regular and robust training to their employees, at all levels, and by creating a culture where speaking up is championed and supported. If whistleblowers are not given sensible assurances about confidentiality and provided with a safe space to speak up, and if no action is taken when retaliation occurs, other will be discouraged from blowing the whistle in the future.
In addition to this, seeking redress where there has been mistreatment can often be an ordeal in itself for individuals and employers can often overlook, or underestimate, the impact this can have on an individual’s mental and physical wellbeing. The stress of challenging their employer, and potentially having to pursue litigation to enforce rights, can often be the most harrowing part of blowing the whistle. Whistleblowers will often fear that as a result of blowing the whistle they may be dismissed or pressured out of the organisation or, if they remain, may be subject to some sort of retaliation whether it be through bullying, demotion, isolation or harassment. In these uncertain times more than ever, employers need to make it clear that they will support those who wish in good faith to raise concerns about wrongdoing or malpractice in the workplace.
Protect has reported that in the last year 40% of the calls received to their advice line were Covid-19 related, and often the individuals blowing the whistle did not feel confident following the procedure set out in their workplace. Therefore, it is essential for employers to instil trust at every level of the organisation and communicate their workplace policies on whistleblowing openly and effectively.
World Whistleblowers Day is a great opportunity to create and engage in positive conversations with employees around the arrangements employers have in place for reporting wrongdoing and why these are important to the business. Practical points for employers to adopt to increase levels of employee engagement on the subject of speaking up include:
- Ensure engagement throughout the organisation – management must lead from the top.
- Compile a list of ‘FAQs’ and ‘How to’ guides for employees and managers, which summarises the workplace policy and clearly identifies who the best first point of contact would be.
- Implement training for all employees and for managers and executives so that they are empowered to deal with concerns when they are raised.
- Carry out a survey to assess employee confidence in whistleblowing procedures – and act on the results.
- Review and update existing policies – any changes made to the policy itself should be brought to the attention of all employees and circulated widely.
- Remind those who blow the whistle of available support, including, where appropriate, an Employee Assistance Programme or counselling via other private medical insurance.
- Monitor the risk of victimisation through robust aftercare processes and monitor the wellbeing of those who have raised concerns.
If you are an employer and would like to discuss your obligations and considerations for your employees regarding whistleblowing in the workplace, you have any other questions arising from this alert, or for specific legal advice on particular circumstances, please contact our Partner Beth Hale or Associate Naomi Latham, both of whom specialise in employment and partnership issues for multinational employers, senior executives, partnerships and partners.