Caroline Biebuyck 18 Jul 2019 10:08am

Making whistleblowing work

Companies should stop worrying about whistleblowing and see the positives it can bring, according to a new ICAEW paper. Caroline Biebuyck finds out why cultural change is more important than having the right policy wording

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Caption: Illustration by The Project Twins

Attitudes to whistleblowing are divided. Those who blow the whistle are seen as heroes if they act in the public interest or prevent financial loss; but less so if they expose other kinds of deficiencies in an organisation’s culture. Adverse attitudes to whistleblowing need to stop, according to a new paper issued by ICAEW’s Technical Strategy Department. How whistleblowing helps companies aims to reposition the conversation away from the negative connotations of whistleblowers to focus on the positives: reasons why companies should promote a culture that encourages employees and others to report when they feel things are going wrong.

“Whistleblowing offers companies a chance to get honest feedback and it should be seen as an opportunity for improvement – irrespective of the nature of the deficiency exposed,” says ICAEW head of corporate governance Elizabeth Richards. All too often board members have been known to groan when they hear the term whistleblowing. The report encourages them to take a different viewpoint and see whistleblowing as an important part of the overall toolkit for effective management. “We want boards to start thinking of whistleblowing as a valuable safety mechanism.

Whistleblowers must not be demonised. No board can know what is happening throughout the company all the time. That’s why it’s imperative to have this constant source of information that can alert the board to things that are going wrong,” says Richards. The differences in attitudes to whistleblowing often come down to personal experience, both positive and negative. Richards argues that anyone running an organisation should take personal feelings out of the equation and aim to reach a neutral position. “Boards need to keep whistleblowing in perspective,” she says.

“We encourage a professional and objective approach on the part of companies and whistleblowers, in which emotion does not play a part, in which the company has good policies and treats whistleblowers fairly. Unfortunately high- profile cases skew the debate. Many whistleblowers remain anonymous and stay with their organisation.” Protect (formerly Public Concern at Work) has been working with individuals and organisations for more than 25 years, using training and consultancy to help businesses strengthen their whistleblowing arrangements.

Part of this is trying to reframe whistleblowing from being seen as an extreme act and something to fear, to part of a business’s normal practices. “Employees raising concerns about wrongdoing, risk or malpractice at work is happening in businesses and other organisations every day: we only really label it whistleblowing if it’s being ignored by line management and there needs to be further steps, or if there is some kind of retaliation against the person who spoke up,” says senior adviser Ida Nowers. People who have concerns about an organisation have three choices: to raise the issue internally; to keep quiet; or to bring the issue to external attention. A lot of board anxiety is around external reporting as the directors see this as where the organisation’s reputation could be affected or that there may be regulatory consequences.

The true risk is in staff keeping quiet, says Nowers. “Real harm happens when there is a culture of fear and silence. Employees are the eyes and ears of an organisation as they are the first to know when something is going wrong, making them a very effective early detection system. They can also act as an effective deterrent: a member of staff is much less likely to engage in wrongdoing or cover something up if they think their colleagues are not going to keep silent and can leapfrog line managers to speak to someone senior in the organisation about their concerns.”

Many whistleblowers that approach Protect say their concerns have been ignored. Generally they give up after two attempts, says Nowers. “This means organisations only have a small window of opportunity to listen to a whistleblower. After that, we all face the cost of silence.” ICAEW’s paper lists five benefits of whistleblowing, with inspirational examples to show how these apply in real-life situations.

“We want companies to take a mature view and look at the benefits whistleblowing brings to the company and to the individual directors,” says Richards. These benefits start with regarding whistleblowing as an essential last line of defence in companies’ internal control systems, helping to reveal inconvenient truths about things that have already happened.