A strong speak-up culture is one where employees are willing and able to raise concerns if they suspect or experience conduct falling short of their organisations’ values (or, at the extreme, behaviour that might constitute regulatory or criminal misconduct). It is ultimately underpinned by having robust internal whistleblowing procedures in place and actively promoting them, so that employees, contractors, suppliers and other personnel at all levels of the business are aware of reporting routes, and managers who deal with those reports are adequately trained to handle them.
Whistleblowing programmes have been a focus for many organisations for years now. However, recent data from the Freshfields whistleblowing survey (which collected views from over 2,500 individuals across 13 industries and five regions) suggests that organisations may wish to review how effectively they publicise their whistleblowing procedures and how they train their managers to deal with whistleblowing.
The data shows that less than half of survey respondents felt that the ‘average employee’ at their organisation would be aware that a whistleblowing policy was in place, and therefore would know what to do should they have a concern to raise. While this figure has increased slightly since the last iteration of the survey in 2020 (47 per cent in 2023, up from 43 per cent in 2020), it is still low. And in addition to concerns around lack of awareness, 25 per cent of respondents felt that managers in their organisations were not properly trained on whistleblowing procedures.
Interestingly, both statistics showed a stark difference between the countries included in the survey. The least positive results were in Germany and France, where 31 and 30 per cent of respondents, respectively, felt that the ‘average employee’ would have awareness of a whistleblowing policy and 46 and 64 per cent of respondents, respectively, believed that managers were not properly trained. In contrast, in the United States, 62 per cent of respondents felt that there was awareness of a whistleblowing policy and only 16 per cent of respondents reported concerns about manager training. Similarly positive results emerged from Hong Kong, while in the UK, the figures are 57 per cent for awareness and 41 per cent for training concerns (putting it in the middle of the pack).
Clearly it is no use having a policy in place if no one knows about it and managers aren’t trained on it. So, how do employers improve awareness of reporting routes and run effective training programmes for managers who deal with whistleblowing reports? We’ve set out our top tips for employers below.
- Promote your whistleblowing policy (and any updates to it) in writing in a variety of different forms and in a manner which is likely to be most effective at central and local level – common examples are on the company intranet, in team newsletters, in posters/flyers around the workplace and in staff handbooks. And don’t just stop at written promotion – hold townhalls, use team meetings and consider incorporating into general compliance training materials too.
- It is a good idea to promote the policy regularly to ensure that all staff members are reminded of the procedures and to inform any newcomers. The various channels through which the policy is promoted should be accessible. For example, businesses should consider the use of multiple languages based on their operational geographies and alternative forms of media to ensure maximum accessibility for different audiences.
- It is also important for you to consider which other stakeholders ought to be made aware of your whistleblowing framework (via contractual documents and/or the company’s external website) and benefit from protection under it. For example, it is becoming increasingly good practice for businesses with supply chains that pose greater potential exposure to ethical and/or regulatory issues to ensure that their framework covers contractors, suppliers and others within those supply chains. Under the EU Whistleblower Directive, the requirement to make reporting channels available extends beyond employees, meaning that many organisations with an EU footprint are having to think about broadening the reach of their current channels.
- Don’t underestimate the power of setting the tone from the top – executives and managers should promote your policy by the way they behave at work, creating an open culture where disclosures are welcome.
- Consider testing the effectiveness of your speak-up culture by regularly reviewing whistleblowing data, conducting employee surveys and reporting – some companies prepare an annual report to the board (and/or relevant committees of the board) on the operation and effectiveness of their whistleblowing systems and controls. Analysing data at regular intervals can provide a valuable insight into whether the infrastructure is being used, whether there have been spikes and dips in reporting in a particular business area or jurisdiction, and whether there may be merit in focusing greater attention from a messaging or training perspective.
- Even if you’re not required to, consider appointing a whistleblowing champion to be responsible for overseeing whistleblowing arrangements. Non-executive directors on the company’s board are often well-placed to perform these roles (and do so in UK banks, for example).
- Ensure that your managers are not only trained to deal with the process aspects, but to be aware of broader considerations, including confidentiality, sensitivity, data protection, mental health/wellbeing, protection from retaliation and other employment law considerations. This will ensure that employees are not deterred from raising certain types of concerns and have a greater sense of safety and security in speaking up.
- Remember that training is not just for managers who handle speak-up reports – providing training on internal procedures at all levels of an organisation will help to develop a supportive and open speak-up culture. The same is true where responsibility for handling whistleblowing reports has been outsourced to a third-party or independent provider such as an externally administered whistleblowing hotline – businesses would be well-advised to ensure that they conduct sufficient due diligence on these providers pre-engagement and ensure that there are adequate contractual mechanisms in place to encourage day-to-day best practice (including in relation to the training of their front-line staff).
- Focus on clear messaging around anti-retaliation – for example, reassurance to employees that a disclosure made in good faith will not affect their position at work or cause them to be subjected to detrimental treatment (whether the concerns raised turn out to be substantiated or not).
- Remember that the whistleblowing landscape is constantly changing – be alert to legal, regulatory and societal developments.
Ultimately, having a strong speak-up culture encourages early detection of potential issues, allowing a business to mitigate the risk of ongoing and/or repeated conduct which could otherwise lead to greater regulatory enforcement, litigation risk and/or reputational harm.
To access the full whistleblowing survey report, please click here. The Freshfields team would be very happy to discuss any of the themes in the report in more detail.