How to Create a Whistleblowing Culture in Your Company (and why you should...)
From childhood we were taught not to tell on anyone – we are a proud nation of non-dobbers. The idea of encouraging a whistleblowing culture in your company ‘blows’ in the face of our upbringing.
In the past, whistleblowing in Australia has been an incredibly difficult process for any individual who attempted to try to improve matters inside corporate walls. Most cases rarely ended in anything but misery for the whistleblower.
Yet whistleblowing is vital where there are blocks in the organisation preventing the exposure of unsafe and/or inethical conduct. Whilstleblowing is the only way for this information to reach senior decision makers in the business, or where necessary, to bypass them.
It takes courage for an individual to stand up when they know something is wrong. Your company can make this step much less stressful by building a culture where whistleblowing is encouraged and rewarded. In fact, healthy, modern companies need to foster a whistleblowing culture, where doing the wrong thing is not accepted at any level. Your company can stand up and be brave so that your individual workers don’t need to be so courageous, or feel so alone.
What does the law say about whistleblowing and whistleblowing protection?
Until recently, Australian legislation around whistleblowing protection was patchy – a sort of mish-mash of federal and state laws which left a lot to be desired. As of July 2019, new federal legislation came into effect to provide a greater level of protection than whistleblowers had ever seen before in Australia.
The new legislation made it illegal for someone exposing corruption and cover-ups to be subject to retaliation such as losing their job or facing damage to their reputation. It also makes it easier for them to get compensation when deserved, or to speak to the media about the cover-up if nothing is done by the company to fix the problems.
Instigating a whistleblower policy
This new law initially extended to around 33,000 Australian companies who were required to have a comprehensive whistleblower policy in place by the start of 2020. However, this is a benchmark that frankly all companies should follow.
Developing a comprehensive policy and procedure for whistleblowers is step one for your business, and will not only create a better workplace culture, but it will also improve your company’s public reputation. Positive steps like this go towards your employee and customer experience and can become a good aspect of healthy branding.
A good policy should include secure channels within the organisation and designated people to handle the matter, but it also needs to put the onus on the company itself to promote and encourage people coming forward.
It should detail how the company will investigate any disclosures as well as protect anyone coming forward.
A great example of such as policy is this one from the Fred Hollows Foundation:
The attitude towards whistleblowing is changing
Individual people are seeing the response to the #metoo movement, and the fallout from complaints about child sexual abuse and financial services which led to royal commissions. The public opinion of a whistleblower is shifting from a disloyal or disgruntled worker to someone to admire and imitate.
We are watching ordinary people take down mighty conglomerates with deep pockets and large legal teams, such as Westpac following allegations of money laundering and 7-Eleven’s extensive corporate wage fraud.
An employee who comes forward about something wrong within your walls does so with a strong sense of what is best for society and other employees. The greater perception in the community is starting to support this. As the saying goes, “the standards you walk past are the standards you accept”. The Whistleblowing legislation is making people take notice about what it is they are walking past and giving them avenues to challenge it.
How does whistleblowing correlate with company confidentiality?
The protections under whistleblower legislation override the restrictions of company confidentiality.
If your employees have information about misconduct, criminal activity or actions posing a danger to people or the financial system, they can step outside company confidentiality obligations to make disclosures about what they know.
The new laws will protect them from any retaliation, including attempts to silence them by enforcing internal confidentiality provisions.
How to encourage a whistleblowing culture in your workplace
Encouraging whistleblowing is your opportunity to attract and manage complaints about your company in the right way, rather than waiting for the walls to collapse in around you.
In order for a business to have a compliant culture, it needs a safe environment for workers to escalate genuine concerns.
According to Whistling While They Work 2, a research project by Griffith University partnering with federal and state agencies, there is ALWAYS more that you can do.
Of course, the success of your company is important, however “ensuring this success is socially responsible and also achieved with high standards of business and public integrity, does not happen by accident. All organisations face the challenge of also ensuring governance and management processes meet expectations of clients, society, and staff by ensuring the company or agency has, and lives out, a positive and healthy ethical culture.”
Time to make your company a positive example
So, how do you go about changing your current culture to one where reporting problems is a positive experience?
A few key steps you can put into place to paint a new culture picture within your organisation include:
1. Create a comprehensive whistleblowers’ policy which seeks to raise issues and put them on the table for discussion and action
2. Designate trusted people for employees to report to, and give them the power to make a difference
3. Encourage an open-door environment to help people come forward, including to your designated people and even to the highest executives or straight to the board if it warrants it
4. Make sure everybody knows about the policy and that your company actively supports it (it’s a ‘living’ policy not a dusty document filed somewhere)
5. Set up an internal complaints process including opportunities for anonymous complaints, such as online employee surveys or an old school Suggestions Box
6. Agenda discussing issues and complaints at team meetings to get people talking, and keep this culture at the forefront of their minds. Consider adding ‘Whistleblowing” to the board agenda as a regular item to check the policy is in force and working and to hear a summary of what types of matters are being raised. This might help you to identify systemic issues with people, departments or processes as well as ad-hoc matters.
7. Offer rewards and incentives for people who do come forward
For more information to help you get started, check out ASIC’s pages here:
Check out our other articles or click on the links below for more resources for existing and aspiring Company Directors: