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Whistleblowing is a fact of life for US and UK organizations.  Encouraged by governments, loved by the media and aided by the many stakeholders that have an interest in seeing business in general and specific organizations in particular being embarrassed and ‘punished’.  So how can organizations deal with the threat of whistleblowing?

Let’s start at the beginning.  We define whistleblowing as the act of an employee or ex-employee raising concerns about perceived wrongdoing within an organization in a manner that is outside normal communication channels. Whistleblowing is often associated with going to an external body such as a regulator or the media without management approval.

Whistleblowing is almost always for reasons other than personal gain.  While I accept that US legislation that rewards whistleblowers with a percentage of the proven wrong-doing may drive some claims, either directly or indirectly, the risks to whistleblowers are almost always significant and outweigh the huge uncertainties of a public payoff. 

While some organizations have highlighted cases of employees or ex-employees threatening organizations with exposure of alleged wrong-doing if they don’t receive an inducement, this is more correctly known as fraud or bribery.  In such a situation the act of whistleblowing is actually counter productive to the employee and can be exposed as such.

Whistleblowing dynamics

If we look at the definition of whistleblowing, you’ll notice a couple of key words

• “Perceived wrongdoing”
• Outside of ‘normal’ communication channels

Whistleblowers are not usually anonymous (it reduces the impact of their allegations) and therefore risk their job, career, livelihood and more

Whistleblowers go ‘external’ because they either have no internal communication channels to express their views (hence help lines) or they aren’t believed by the organization.

Whether we believe whistleblowers to be right, either of their views or the way they have chosen to bring them to management’s attention, we cannot deny that whistleblowers are courageous – they have a lot to lose even if they are proved right.  It goes without saying that most employees won’t whistle-blow because they have more to lose than to gain.

Characteristics of industries where whistleblowing is prevalent

We have researched industries where whistleblowing is more prevalent – such as primary industry extraction (coal, oil etc), financial services and healthcare – and started to log common characteristics such as;

• Employees are treated as a cost and not an investment
• There is a clear demarcation between job families
• Organizations tend to be hierarchical, autocratic and bureaucratic 
• There is oversight by an external regulator or (is strongly influenced by) politicians and such oversight is through inflexible measures
• Employees have a stronger loyalty to their profession than their employer
• Financial incentives for malpractice are high
• The prevalent culture reflects the North Western European views of the role of individuals in society.

There are strong negative links between each of these characteristics and something we’ll come back in a while – innovation, employee engagement and organizational agility.

What happens in Organizations when a Whistleblower makes an accusation?

How do organizations typically respond to a whistleblower?  In my experience, where organizations have developed a systematic approach to whistleblowing, I often see the following;

• Panic
• Blame the (ex)employee
• Try to stop the (ex)employee e.g. legal injunction, by claiming
   o The employee is mistaken or incorrect
   o Management was not alerted to the issue and therefore had no opportunity to correct it (‘bad apples’ defence)
• Implement a Whistleblower Policy
• Train managers in the new Whistleblower Policy (obvious)
• Implement a Confidential Helpline (more enlightened)

The point, of course, is that these responses are simply sticking plasters and don’t address the root causes of why the whistleblower feels like they have had to go to an external body to report the alleged wrongdoing.

Let’s look at this another way...

Organizations don’t have to respond like this.  With forethought and planning, the impact of whistleblowing cannot only be minimised but seen catalyst for positive change.

If we step outside the immediacy of the whistleblowing situation, most organizations would love employees that …

• Were prepared to take (measured) risks
• Cared enough about the organization to want it to succeed and were prepared to risk their own job for the greater good
• Identified with values and principles beyond their own self interest
• Were not prepared to be held back by their formal job description

Taking an even broader perspective and examining key business drivers, we can argue that in today’s global village where traditional competitive advantages can easily be replicated and where new types of business models are blossoming, in order to survive and thrive, organizations need to…

• Innovate
• Engage employees
• Be agile

Therefore, if we turn our previous views of whistleblowers around, we might recognise that;

• Whistleblowers demonstrate a number of these traits and/or support a number of these organizational drivers
• And arguably just want their views to be heard...

So why not celebrate these employees and recognise that a significant part of the issue lies with the organization and its inability to listen.

What can Organizations do?

The answer is “an enormous amount”!  Although this is a subject for another day, in summary, there are three main, interwoven areas that an organization can focus on.

1. Create multiple 2-way communication channels

One of the most common reasons that whistleblowers cite for going ‘public’ is the inability for them to bring their concerns to the appropriate people and have those concerns listened to with an open mind. 

Examples of two-way communication channels include;

• Performance development process
• Employee forums
• Employee surveys
• Brown bag lunches
• Coaching / mentoring
• Cross functional teams
• Town Hall meetings
• Help line!

Be warned however, creating two-way communications channels without a willingness by management to listen to employees is worse than not trying at all!

2. Develop courage in employees

Courage is the willingness to act or speak out, despite the perceived risks of doing so e.g. lose job, lack of promotion, restricted career development, rejected from the workgroup.  Whistleblowers demonstrate courage but often over-react to perceived wrongdoing.  By developing courage in employees, the organization can help them understand the different ways that they can raise concerns without going directly to an external party.

The great news is that courage is a competency.  There are many techniques that can be used to develop courage and these include;

• Teaching an awareness of the competency and how individuals response to potentially courageous situations
• Gaining a better understanding of the risks involved
• Providing tools and techniques to enable courageousness
• Provide access to safe environments to test or ‘talk out’ the concern
• Demonstrating how practice can help overall courage levels
• Proving that starting with small aspects can develop confidence to tackle larger concerns

3. Implement a culture that reduces the risks of speaking out

The third key focus is to implement a culture that makes speaking out less risky for employees.  Although covering the previous two areas, this focus recognises the broader mechanisms that organizations can use to reinforce new behaviours.

Examples of how such a culture can be implemented include;

• Creating genuine two-way communication channels
• Learning to celebrate failure
• Defining and reinforcing common values
• Building and encouraging team based rewards and performance
• Driving personal responsibility for success
• Using storytelling to clarify acceptable and non-acceptable behaviour
• Linking organizational strategy to individual goals
• Senior management leading from the front – demonstrating acceptable behaviours

However, be warned that culture change is an ongoing process and can take years to see visible results. 

Courageous organizations

These mechanisms – two-way communication channels, developing employee courage and creating a culture that encourages employees to speak out – are also common recommendations to drive innovation, employee engagement and organizational agility.

The rewards of success are potentially enormous and include increased profitability, greater organizational agility, strategic success and a great market share.

We call this type of organization culture “Courageous”

What do you think?