Recently I was fortunate to be invited to be on a panel discussion hosted by law firm Herbert Smith Freehills to talk about whistleblowing and creating a speak up culture.
I was joined on the panel by some great minds such as HSF Partners Mike Gonski and John O’Donnell, as well as the wonderful HR thought leader, Rhonda Brighton-Hall from M.W.A.H – Making Work Absolutely Human.
The discussion centred on a legislative update on whistleblowing in Australia by Andrew Eastwood from HSF before we delved into talking through a typical corporate case study of a whistleblower matter.
You know the type, John in accounting sees an issue, tells Mary who now has to decide what to do…the Board now want to know how our whistleblowing policy and framework compares to best practice. Standard stuff right?
There was lots of talk about all of the important aspects of managing a whistleblower complaint, things like verifying the initial information as best you can, protecting the identity of the whistleblower and providing them with support, conducting some preliminary inquiries internally within the organisation, engaging internal and external counsel and getting on with the investigation and determining when and if you need to inform authorities and regulators.
Also important things like at the centre of all of this is a human being (the whistleblower) and for them to take the step to speak up they are taking the step of potentially breaking their relationship with the organisation. (Thanks Rhonda, always good to bring that human element back into the mix!)
It was a wide ranging and interesting discussion but one thing stood became really obvious to me on the night and reinforced what I have known for a long time – dealing with whistleblower complaints and related investigations is a complex business and often organisations don’t get the right people involved to navigate all of the risks and challenges they can throw up.
There are many, many factors and things to take into consideration at every stage of dealing with a serious whistleblower complaint, and even though all of the panel members had significant individual experience at being involved in whistleblower complaints in one form or another over their careers, one thing that stood out was this:
To deal with a whistleblower issue as best you can you need DIVERSITY.
Not diversity in age, gender or race but rather diversity of thought and experience.
We hear lots about diversity in general but not enough about the benefits of diversity of thought and experience in bringing a collection of trained experts together, from different backgrounds and walks of like, with different but complementary skill sets, to deal with a complex and sensitive matter like this.
Take me for example. As a dyed-in-the wool investigator you get someone who is focused on process: eliciting information from the whistleblower and other witnesses, preserving and collecting evidence, removing potential conflicts of interest along the way, minimising risk, deploying appropriately skills investigators to interview the respondents and compiling factual reports free from opinion.
With our legal-eagle friends, you have folks who are focused on employment law obligations surrounding the whistleblower, witnesses and respondents and how the company treats those parties. They are also in tune to other legal risks that may arise depending on the nature of the issue like breaches of the Corporations Act. All of their advice and guidance is designed to do the job they were hired for: protect the organisation from potential litigation and help the organisation arrive at the right outcome.
Our dear HR friends are often caught in a rock and a hard place as they are often called upon by the organisation to manage the whistleblower and other witnesses, often with no specific training in these types of sensitive matters, all the while being required to provide advice to the organisation on the best way forward from a people perspective because at the end of the day, they represent the business, not the whistleblower. This is where conflicts often arise.
(As an aside this often causes many issues with the actual whistleblower who end up feeling betrayed after building trust and rapport with a HR rep and confiding with them. Another reason why it’s important to articulate roles and responsibilities under your Whistleblower policy.)
Sitting on that panel, surrounded by some great minds with diversity of experience, only served to reinforce to me just how important it is to bring a diverse range of experts to the table to help deal with a complex and sensitive matter like a whistleblower complaint.
Too often we see companies try and minimise who is involved in dealing wiht an issue like this and get it wrong. Whether it be the mismanagement of the whistleblower, mismanagement of the investigation itself, having a lack of diverse experience around the table can be costly for all involved.
Think about your organisation for a minute and ask yourself these simple questions:
- who within your organisation has experience at dealing with whistleblower matters?
- are any of those persons potentially conflicted as a result of their role within the organisation and shouldn’t be involved in all aspects of the matter? Think HR, Legal etc
- have those who are involved received training on the company’s whistleblower policy, roles and responsibilities?
We know that diversity in general is a powerful differentiator in all aspects of our life, both at home and work, yet when it comes to crisis-like events or serious issues we all have a tendency to close ranks and try to deal with it ourselves or with a limited group of people, often with less than ideal outcomes.
Maybe it’s time to challenge that approach. Next time a whistleblower matter arises in your company, stop and look around at the group involved and ask yourself “Have I got the right group of people with the right level of experience involved to drive this to a successful outcome for all involved?
Not just the company, but all involved, including the whistleblower.