Whistle-blowing Insight: Technology is just the start

I thought I would share some insights from some of the work we are doing with a range of clients at present around the hot topic of the moment: whistle-blowing.

There is a lot of talk about whistle-blowing at present (and for good reason) and with scandals now becoming a weekly occurrence across major corporates, sporting organisations and now universities, often I am asked for advice and assistance from clients on how they can tackle these issues head on, get an early heads up on potential misconduct before it becomes a crisis and encouragingly – how can they protect those who are brave enough to speak up in the first place.

Flavour of the month: Technology platforms

Perhaps one of the hottest topics around this discussion of late is the use of technology platforms in Whistle-blowing programs. For example in our business, we have partnered with Whispli – a tool that enables secure, anonymous two-way communications with whistle-blowers. It’s a great tool and our clients love what it brings to their program.

Globally, the largest company that specialises in ethics-style hotlines is Navex Global. Navex have literally thousands of clients and over time they have developed their own proprietary technology platform to help them manage disclosures for their clients. I have never used it so I can’t comment on how good it is.

Closer to home, other whistle-blower hotline service providers are going down the same path of developing their own in-house technology platforms to protect whistle-blower disclosures.

These are all positive developments. Positive developments for whistle-blowers who should now have access to safe and secure methods to report suspected or actual improper conduct and positive for organisations that are serious about dealing with whistle-blowing properly and can see the value an effective program has on improving their organisational culture and the conduct of their employees.

As much as these tools are great, they really are just that – a tool. They are simply a tool that can be used and leveraged to manage your program. But an effective whistleblower program is more than just the technology that supports it and that is why we are often called upon for our advice and support.

So you have chosen a technological solution to support your whistle-blower program but what’s next? Good question. Often organisations realise that implementing a technological solution is not as simple as it sounds and in fact, the entire program needs to be designed to support the technological solution.

Is the policy right? Does the framework and underlying operations of the program support the intent of the policy and the organisation’s commitment to whistle-blowing? Are those charged with overseeing or responding to whistle-blowers adequately trained? These are all good questions which often only lead to more questions and less answers.

This is where we often get called in. Companies make a decision to overhaul their whistle-blower program and decide to implement a new technology solution but soon realise it’s not as simple as it sounds.

So what is involved in getting your whistle-blower program up to scratch and implementing a technological solutions?

Let’s go over a few important elements that can make a massive difference to you having an effective whistle-blower program that your employees actually use (crazy concept I know right?), versus one that simply ticks a compliance box while senior management sit around holding their breath and hoping for the best.

1. Commitment and Tone from the Top

This might sound obvious and should go without saying, but for a whistle-blower program to be effective it needs a firm commitment from the senior executive team and the Board. Easier said than done.

The reality is I often hear from folks who say they are too worried about letting their employees speak up for fear of what might actually come out. What they don’t realise is that regardless of their position on the topic (think bullying, harassment and misconduct at a minimum), improper or unethical conduct is most likely occurring within the organisation and when it is left unchecked it has a detrimental effect long-term on the culture of the organisation, morale of employees and the organisation’s ability to recruit and retain top talent.

2. An effective and simple policy

Let’s be honest. Policies are boring. They are essential for any organisation to set the tone of expected behaviour and to articulate the organisation’s attitude and response to certain issues but, often these policies are too wordy, overly complicated and difficult for employees to understand, providing they could locate them in the first place!

Often the whistle-blower policies we see  are written with the organisation in mind and put employees second. Some have really onerous obligations on the type of conduct employees can report and the information they need to supply and leave employees feeling little confidence that their matter will be taken seriously and that they won’t be adversely impacted for speaking up.

A good whistle-blower policy, at a minimum, should clearly articulate the organisations commitment to whistle-blowing, encourage persons covered under the policy to report suspected or actual improper conduct as early as possible (i.e. not placing the onus on the employee to collect evidence and investigate before reporting) and make it very clear that those who seek protection will not be persecuted or adversely impacted as a result of them speaking up.

This is just a start. We are focusing on getting clients to consider what happens post a whistle-blower investigation to ensure the individual isn’t adversely impacted and there are mechanisms in place to check in and monitor this over an extended period of time.

3. Scope & Operating Model

This is where we really get in and roll our sleeves up and is the part I enjoy the most. This is where you get into the trenches and have some really interesting discussions with those who are trying to improve the way the organisation responds to and treats whistle-blowers.

Whilst a technology solution is great, in order for it to work you need to spend time working through the scope of your program, who is covered, what types of matters can be reported and who will receive those reports in order to respond. This isn’t as easy as it sounds and often organisations get bogged down at this part of the process.

We call this developing the operating model. If you are trying to do this yourself and are getting stuck, email or call me and I am happy to answer any questions you have. Each organisation is different and therefore has different requirements for their operating model.

4. Roles & Responsibilities

Setting aside say the ASX top 50 companies, the reality is most organisations don’t have the internal scale to justify having dedicated resources who are trained in whistle-blowing. As a result we see a range of approaches but one of the most common is where the Company Secretary is charged with overseeing the whistle-blower program and receives reports that are made, usually via a dedicated email address.

This can be problematic for a few reasons that we don’t have time to fully go into here in this article. Some of the issues with this approach include the reporting channel itself where the employee can be identified or has to create a bogus email address to remain anonymous.

In addition, if the Company Secretary is charged with receiving and actioning whistle-blower reports it can reduce the number of reports made about senior employees involved in improper conduct. Given we know that most serious fraud and misconduct issues are perpetrated by senior executives, this is perhaps one of the biggest reasons a whistle-blower program needs to be set up correctly to both encourage reporting and to protect the CoSec from being unfairly criticised.

Consideration also needs to be given to dedicated a formal Whistle-blower Protection Officer (WPO) and Whistle-blower Investigations Officers (WIO). If you need more information on these roles and why they are important, send me a message.

5. Marketing & Communications

What good is a kick-arse whistle-blower program if you don’t take the time to tell your employees about it? Not much. Funnily enough it still amazes me just how many organisations don’t place enough importance on this aspect. They have a policy, put it on the intranet, set up an email address and then don’t tell anyone about it.

The organisations who are doing well in this area (think ASX Top 20, Big banks etc) recognise previous deficiencies and now see the probative value of being proactive, communicating often and being transparent.

Check out the Australian Bankers Associations 6 Guiding Principles here for more information.

6. Education & Training

This is becoming an increasingly important focal point for organisations. Recent scandals and issues have highlighted that often, those charged with receiving and investigating whistle-blower complaints are either inexperienced or haven’t been trained on the organisation’s expectations.

When we work with organisations on designing and implementing their programs, education and training forms an important part of both the implementation process, as well as the ongoing management of the program.

At a minimum, you need to ensure that those who are accountable for receiving and responding to whistle-blower complaints understand the organisation’s policy and framework for treating whistle-blower complaints as well as any legislative obligations that may apply to their industry.

7. Regular audits or reviews

The size and maturity of your organisation will drive this last component. For smaller organisations it can be difficult to find the capacity, experience and dollars to conduct regular program reviews.

For larger organisations, with dedicated risk, compliance or audit functions, they are well served when they incorporate their Whistle-blower programs into their annual or bi-annual reviews.

Another good way to ensure your program is top notch and keeps pace with industry best practice is to periodically conduct an independent review of gap analysis.

Independent reviews can be highly valuable to identify how the program is performing, any gaps between the policy and intended operating model to what is actually occurring. Throw into the mix conducting a dip-sample review of reported issues and the whistle-blower’s experience and you will be in pole position to continually evolve your program.

In closing

Technology is great, and you really should be looking at what you are currently using to manage your whistle-blower disclosures and whether it is cutting the mustard. Look into what exists in the market but remember, technology is just a tool and underpins your program. It is how your program is structured, and how your technology is implemented that is the important part.

If you would like more information on any of the above feel free to reach out to me directly. We are always happy to answer questions and our aim is to transform whistle-blowing, one organisation at a time.

 

Written by Darren Murphy

Integrity expert with a passion for helping companies and professional sporting organisations create safe speak up cultures.

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