Although it began back in 2006, it was the breaking of the Harvey Weinstein scandal in 2017 that really propelled the #MeToo movement into global prominence.  The movement has had a profound impact on many facets of life. It has, at times, dominated the news and helped expose systemic issues within society. It has also refocused employers’ (and employees’) attention on what is and isn’t acceptable workplace behaviour.  40% of respondents to the Freshfields whistleblowing survey, which collected views from over 2,500 individuals across 13 industries and in several regions, stated that the #MeToo movement had educated them regarding acceptable standards of behaviour.  It may seem surprising that the figure isn’t even higher, although one possible positive explanation is that people might have felt they were already aware of where the boundaries of acceptable behaviour lie.  

In light of this heightened awareness and attention on unacceptable behaviour, we had expected that the #MeToo movement might have materially increased confidence in whistleblowing more generally, prompting employees to be more vocal when they spot issues of concern and to feel empowered to call out wrongdoing. However, our survey showed that respondents were divided on the movement’s impact, with only 45% of respondents feeling that the #MeToo movement had led to a more widespread increase in whistleblowing.

Part of an employer’s endeavours to build and strengthen their speak-up culture will turn on adopting a sensitive but robust investigation procedure. This is particularly true in the context of #MeToo related reports, which may require specific handling and a tailored investigation process – something we discussed in a recent podcast.

Overall, the Freshfields 2020 whistleblowing survey indicated some worrying trends, including: a decrease in whistleblowing, a decline in confidence in senior management support for whistleblowers, and an increase in the number of people who fear retaliation if they disclose information, to name a just few. However, in some regions, such as Hong Kong, the results of the survey were more positive. Almost half of Hong Kong respondents said they have been involved in whistleblowing in some form – higher than any of the other jurisdictions surveyed – despite the overall conservative and cultural sensitivities when it comes to speaking up (read more in this Hong Kong-dedicated blog post).

Although our survey did not cover mainland China, we think that some of the trends the survey identified also reflect what is happening in that part of the world. This is for a variety of reasons, including the legislative developments and cultural shifts that empower speaking up and social media becoming a good alternative for whistleblowers. New legislation and guidance that will shed more light on what employers should do in terms of internal whistleblowing channels and whistleblower protection is expected (read more in this China-dedicated blog post).

In the EU, the trends listed above reflect a paradox, given that the adoption of the EU Whistleblowing Directive in December 2019 on the protection of whistleblowers should have increased whistleblower confidence. A reason for this could be that the EU Directive is yet to be implemented (the implementation deadline is December 2021). Despite the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the process, some Member States (eg France, Germany and Sweden) have already drafted the necessary laws which are being consulted on through the applicable legislative channels.

The COVID-19 pandemic has altered our working environment and, with it, the culture of the workplace.  As we explored in a recent podcast it therefore also has the potential to influence our attitudes towards whistleblowing.  Employers should consider reviewing and revising their current whistleblowing arrangements and their communication around whistleblowing, to reflect the possibility of long-term remote working and its impact on attitudes and behaviour.