It takes as little as a strategic pause, a pointed look, perhaps a slight arch of the eyebrow, and the job is done. Your employees have the message loud and clear. Speak up about wrongdoing in the team, and they risk the wrath of their first-line leader.
Yes. All your efforts at creating a speak up culture and promoting confidence in the organisation’s ethics hotline can be undone, without a single word being uttered. And you will likely never know it happened.
We know that the fear of retaliation has a powerful deterrent effect on potential whistleblowers. This fear tends to persist even where there is no objective evidence of retaliation in a given workplace. While there are many drivers of what you may think is your employees’ irrational fear of retaliation, the deterrent power of the immediate superior is one that needs more attention.
Board, committee and executive team members reasonably assume that their support for whistleblowing – demonstrated through their investment in systems, the development and communication of policies and the delivery of awareness training – sends a strong, comforting ‘speak up in safety’ message to all corners of the organisation.
The truth is that the majority of employees ‘know’ the values of your organisation via those who are able to determine the quality of their everyday work life – their first-line supervisor or manager.
This is the person who mediates their understanding of organisation policy and practice. It’s the person who your employees experience as all-powerful in determining what the days, weeks and months ahead will hold for them. It’s the person who can ‘explain’, for example, that management are only promoting the ethics hotline because they’ve been instructed by the audit committee to do so. And these same employees know the limits of your executive line of sight, blurred by layers of supervision, let alone your inability to monitor multiple locations. If retaliation was to become a reality, the chances you will recognise it as such cannot easily be relied on.
It’s not to say that all who engage in subtle deterrence are trying to keep information of wrongdoing from reaching your ears. For many, the promotion of an ethics hotline is threatening for a host of reasons other than wanting to conceal wrongdoing.
The fear of fictitious reports by subordinates and uncertainty as to how these will be handled is one. These are, after all, the people who meter out workplace discipline and who themselves have reason to fear retaliation – by disaffected subordinates. Lack of confidence that they can safely navigate a spotlight on the operations under their supervision without their competence coming into question can be another. And there are more.
Fortunately, having identified this threat to the effectiveness of your whistleblowing system, there are steps that you can take that will reduce the extent of deterrent behaviour by your supervisors and middle managers. These steps to acquiring the support of all who supervise others involve both requiring and inspiring compliance:
- Update your whistleblowing policy to include anti-deterrence provisions, distinct from your existing anti-retaliation provisions. Go one better and place a positive obligation on all who lead others to promote confidence in the policy and in the integrity of the hotline service.
Your anti-deterrence provisions could simply read as follows:
Any action, utterance or insinuation that has the effect of deterring others from reporting information in terms of this policy is prohibited, as it increases the risk and potential for (organisation name) to suffer harm of a reputational, legal and financial nature.
It is an obligation on all who hold positions of influence over others to promote confidence in the (organisation name) whistleblowing policies and procedures, and refrain from casting doubt on the integrity with which reports of wrongdoing will be handled, either by the employer or by the ethics hotline.
Given the importance attached by (organisation name) to this policy, and the legal obligation to provide employees with effective methods to report unethical conduct, any deterrence of whistleblowing constitutes a disciplinary offence.
Consider too that when a report is being investigated, it is the first-line leader who is in a position to deter team members from co-operating with an investigation – and you will want to include a provision to make such deterrence (effectively obstruction) a disciplinary offence.
- Engage all levels of supervision in understanding the importance of the whistleblowing policy and the ethics hotline.
Those who may otherwise feel threatened by the prospect of their subordinates making reports of wrongdoing need to understand that there are many reasons why the policy and its procedures are of strategic importance to the organisation.
This includes an understanding of the fact that when ethics risks are known to employees who are uncomfortable speaking up directly, the whistleblowing policy enables the timely internal handling of matters that could otherwise remain concealed, or which could emerge in the public domain causing avoidable reputational harm, long after remedial action is possible.
Instil confidence in your supervisory levels that you will handle reports in a fair and reasonable manner, and demonstrate this in the handling of any whistleblowing reports.
There will occasionally be those whose efforts to deter whistleblowing extend far beyond the subtle. Blatant threats – some of which manifest in actual retaliation – are experienced far too often. This leads to a third recommendation – add deterrence of whistleblowing to your list of unethical activities that you encourage your employees to report. Advise them to report any warnings and threats immediately, be these made by their supervisors, colleagues, suppliers, customers or other third parties. You need to know the extent to which your employees are being deterred from fulfilling their obligation to speak up in your best interests.
When we require those with managerial and supervisory responsibility to be advocates rather than detractors of our whistleblowing policies and processes, and when we inspire them with an understanding of the necessity, we reduce the extent to which threats and fear of retaliation deter your employees from reporting unethical activity. When everyone in an organisation knows that it is not only retaliation for whistleblowing, but any form of deterrence that is prohibited and reportable, it increases the likelihood that such threats will be surfaced by the targets of or witnesses to the deterrence.
As long as we have no idea of the extent to which preemptive deterrence is reducing the likelihood of reports being made in the first place, we can take little comfort from an apparent absence of retaliation for speaking up.
An independently managed, specialist ethics hotline may be the only or the last resort of those who would otherwise not share their valuable information about suspected or known unethical activity affecting your organisation.
Established in 2000, Whistle Bowers (Pty) Ltd offers a full suite of reporting channels to their clients who operate on six of the world’s seven continents. For much more information visit the Whistle Blowers website, and for business enquiries please email email@example.com.
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DALE HORNE | MANAGING DIRECTOR | WHISTLE BLOWERS (PTY) LTD
Text for Whistle Blowers (Pty) Ltd by Penny Milner-Smyth