Having a whistleblower policy is an important part of many modern-day corporations and organizations. A whistleblower program shows commitment to developing a speak-up culture that values employees. However, despite all the prominence whistleblowing has received in the last decade, the road to disclosing the truth remains fraught with peril.
Why do it?
As far as ethics and law are concerned, the case for whistleblowing is crystal. A whistleblower’s role in keeping businesses and governments accountable is vital. Exposing criminal misconduct leads to public scrutiny and investigations – in turn, possibly influencing the behavior of similar organizations in the future. Current whistleblowing legislation in multiple countries affords extensive protection to those who decide to speak up.
The whistleblowing dilemma
Despite every argument in its favor, whether or not to speak up remains an incredibly tricky prospect. Whistleblowers often end up becoming victims as a consequence of their actions, regardless of noble intentions. Among other consequences, fear of backlash or being labeled a snitch is all too terrifyingly real.
Lack of awareness
Several factors combined contribute towards people turning a blind eye towards improprieties in their midst. It is not so much willful ignorance as a lack of awareness – they do not know whether an unlawful activity has occurred or how to speak up. While companies may have open-door policies and codes of conduct, these statements of intent can go unheard if not communicated regularly.
The average employee will not be familiar with the law or go through a policy manual. “Most employees and colleagues who recognize that there is some type of misconduct happening in the company, often do not know the specific law that would apply to this misconduct,” says Transparency Network’s Managing Director, Nathan Mertens.
Despite having proof or knowledge of the law, it takes significant time to validate claims. For acting in good faith and conscience, employees’ risk being ostracized and destroying existing relationships. “It’s a very risky situation for an employee who would eventually want to continue working at the company or even in the same industry,” states Andreas Samara from Transparency Networks.
What will come out of it?
Studies show that more than 38% of employees witnessed wrongdoing but decided against reporting since they did not believe anything would come out of it. Employees remain wary and do not trust organizations to receive or handle the information appropriately. Employees are more likely to speak up if they know an organization will act on their information.
The stakes can be high for whistleblowers. Despite legal protection, they might be subjected to unfair treatment. While ordinary people will recognize the courage in the whistleblowers’ actions, industry players may view them as indiscreet and disloyal. If the case goes public, media scrutiny can be brutal and affect a person’s well-being.
Given the stakes, people will think twice before reporting what they know if they feel nothing will come out of it.
Mitigating the risks
Anyone considering becoming a whistleblower should first go through company policies for direction, and if needed, consult a lawyer that specializes in whistleblower cases. Working with an attorney familiarizes you with a world of legal protection that exists specifically for whistleblowers. It is the first step towards knowing for certain you are doing the right thing.
Moreover, organizations that seek to promote ethical culture must first walk the talk. To inspire a speak-up culture, it is the leadership that needs to imbibe these same values. Their commitment to ethics drives company culture and establishes standards for others to emulate.
Companies must regularly communicate and advertise their whistleblowing policies. It demonstrates both the willingness to address concerns and the process that employees should follow to report. Additionally, protective mechanisms such as anonymous disclosures can act as assurances for someone worried about the ramifications on their personal and professional lives.
Whistleblowing is undoubtedly the right thing to do, but it takes more than ethical and legal assurances to encourage people to speak up. Creating a comprehensive ecosystem of support is critical to remove the stigma and ensure whistleblower protection.