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“Building trust once a report is made is just as important as encouraging employees to report”

 

Giles Newman, Managing Director, International at NAVEX Global speaks to Governance and Compliance about legal protection for whistleblowers and trust within organisations

Interview by Sonia Sharma, Editor of Governance and Compliance

 

The 2020 Regional Whistleblowing Benchmark Report from NAVEX Global was recently released and gave a regional comparison of the latest whistleblowing report data, taken from the world’s largest hotline and incident management database. Based on 1.4m reports globally, the findings show that harassment reports are highest in Europe whilst case closure times are the slowest in the continent compared to any other region, with a median case closure time of 83 days. Retaliation is also a huge concern when it comes to reporting, and this has been heightened by the socio-economic impact of COVID-19 on the workplace.

“Organisations need to develop a high level of trust in their speak-up programmes, so people feel safe and secure to come to them when things aren’t right. But it doesn’t stop with the disclosure” Giles Newman, Managing Director, International at NAVEX Global says. We speak to Giles to find out more about whistleblowing procedures and the effect of the pandemic on organisational culture.

 

The report from NAVEX Global revealed that European organisations have the lowest overall whistleblowing reporting rate globally, along with the slowest time for case closures. Why is this a problem for European organisations in particular? Why do they take longer than their global counterparts to address cases?

Reporting levels in Europe are likely to be influenced by cultural perceptions and a historic absence of legal protection for whistleblowers. In certain European countries, speaking up at work is yet to be normalised to the extent of somewhere like the US where whistleblower protections have been in place for almost 20 years. As a result, employees may remain reluctant to raise concerns.

The fact that Europe has the slowest time for case closures may also have some influence, as workers who experience a lengthy and uncertain process may be discouraged from reporting a problem again. It is difficult to pinpoint a single reason for extended closure times in Europe, although the legal landscape is again a likely factor. Other issues that might impact investigation times significantly can include limited investigation resources, parallel investigations by a regulator or law enforcement, and investigation complexity.

The pandemic has and will continue to have a substantial impact on the workplace. How will this affect employee whistleblowing procedures, and has it made employees more reluctant to come forward?

The pandemic is further increasing the timeframe for case closures, due to the limitations of remote working. With many people working outside of the office, gathering evidence is more challenging. And scheduling interviews, a key part of the process for more sensitive issues such as harassment reports, can be more difficult to organise and complete in the absence of face-to-face meetings. Working remotely has also not assuaged employees’ fears of retaliation – one of the main reasons stopping people from reporting. While certain types of retaliation, such as physical threats, are less likely to happen in the current environment, employees may fear negative responses when returning to the office or feel more uncertain about job security, for example.

How can organisations develop a high level of trust within their speak-up programmes?

Communication is key to changing people’s perceptions of whistleblowing and increasing trust in reporting programmes. Organisations should build a culture where raising issues is not simply encouraged but expected and seen as positive. This must be constantly reinforced with support from all leaders. In the current socio-economic climate, where fears of being on ‘the list’ for redundancies may stop people from speaking up, changing perceptions is even more important. Furthermore, it’s critical that companies establish and consistently enforce non-retaliation policies, in order to increase confidence and trust in the whistleblowing process.

The pandemic has meant the majority of employees are now working remotely. How can training and awareness on whistleblowing processes and antiretaliation policies be effectively communicated to all employees?

Regardless of the working environment, every employee should be familiar with the company’s whistleblowing processes and policies. The only way to ensure this is with constant communication via training, and by making informative resources easily accessible to workers at any time. These should clarify how the internal whistleblowing process is conducted, how cases are addressed and investigated, and details on how retaliation risks are mitigated. While this communication should be spearheaded by the HR and compliance departments, team leaders should support this as they are closer to employees on a daily basis.

How can organisations encourage employees to speak-up, and what role does management have in tackling issues before they escalate?

Building trust once a report is made is just as important as encouraging employees to report. Keeping the reporter updated throughout the process, especially when case closure timeframes have extended, will help keep them engaged and increase their confidence in reporting issues in future. The more people see the process in a positive light, the closer organisations will be to changing the internal perception of whistleblowing and avoiding escalation. Management will also have a key role to play in this. It is important that HR, legal and compliance work in partnership with managers so that they can identify issues in their teams early on and address them directly, even before formal reporting is needed.

European organisations had the lowest level of anonymous reporting rates globally in 2019 at 52%. This indicates that people in Europe are more trusting in going directly to line managers, or other sources to raise complaints. However, with direct reporting now impacted by remote working, how can businesses think of other ways to encourage people to feel safe when coming forward?

Remote working has made direct reporting more challenging, so European organisations should be aiming to reassure employees, implement multiple whistleblowing channels, and clearly communicate the options available. Historically, anonymous reporting has been not only discouraged, but legally prohibited in certain European countries. As the EU Whistleblower Protection Directive comes into force later this year, member states will be required to overhaul outdated whistleblower protection standards. That means now is the right time for organisations to reimagine their ‘speak up’ approach and begin building greater trust in their updated procedures. It is important that organisations take the time to survey employees on their comfort levels, when it comes to raising concerns. This way, organisations will be better positioned to identify and address gaps in their reporting process. Offering a platform that provides confidential reporting over the telephone, mobile or online, for example, can help encourage people to share their concerns at the earliest opportunity.