Listen Up! – can you still hear your employees in the new normal?
As many companies focus on planning the first steps back to their workplaces after lockdown, now is the time to dust off and review whistleblowing arrangements to ensure they are fit for purpose.
When the Covid-19 pandemic first struck, stories of whistle blowers coming forward particularly within the health and social care sector - around the lack of access to personal protection equipment -dominated the headlines. But employers will now find themselves having to deal with new health and safety issues which would have been unthinkable before the pandemic. And to add to this, many companies will also have large numbers of employees, as never before, continuing to work remotely.
Government guidance for the workplace
On 11 May, the government published eight guides for employers to help them get their businesses back up and running and workplaces operating safely. See our podcast on this new guidance. However, the government guidance currently remains that those who can work from home should continue to do so.
Many employers will therefore be grappling with ensuring they comply with health and safety obligations both for employees in the workplace and for the health and safety of those employees working from home. Under the current circumstances, it is very unlikely that employers can carry out health and safety risk assessments at an employee's home in the usual way. An employer should still check that each employee feels the work they're being asked to do at home can be done safely and that they have the right equipment.
As the government guidance encourages employees to report their concerns of any breaches of health and safety to their local authority or the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), whistleblowing (or “speak up”) arrangements and how employers engage with their employees will become even more important while employers navigate these new working arrangements.
Employees in the workplace
To comply with the new social distancing and design of workplace requirements there are likely to be far fewer people in many workplaces:
- Remind employees of existing whistleblowing processes and procedures and consider whether Covid-19 issues should come through the same route and to the same people (e.g. a helpline) or whether to set up a dedicated Covid-19 reporting system. Where established processes for reporting exist, it will usually be more efficient to encourage employees to use them if they have any health and safety concerns;
- encourage regular dialogue with your employees to ask for reports which include those “minor” level disclosures e.g. are the hand sanitisers running low to the more serious infringements of health and safety. An employee making a report directly to the HSE before raising this with an employer should be a last resort; and
- consider if your line managers need training to deal with the government guidance and how to deal with concerns that employee may raise. These changes will be very new and potentially challenging for many workplaces.
Employees working remotely
Distance from the workplace can create a sense of security and safety which might encourage more employees to make reports when they would not have taken this step if still present in the workplace. But at the same time employees can no longer see or become aware of misconduct or suspicious behaviour, or they think the issue is less important, especially in a time of crisis.
- Remind employees how important it is to be even more present and aware when working remotely and to whom they should report concerns i.e. if you have an external speak up helpline;
- Update speak up/listen up policies for remote working practices if necessary;
- Do your line managers who are working remotely need training to deal with virtual/remote reports?
- Can your internal investigation teams communicate securely even though they are located remotely, and can professional external investigators work with your teams securely, even under remote working conditions?
- Consider an external provider for a secure or digital secure whistleblowing solution that is easily accessible to employees, suppliers, customers or other stakeholders, anytime and anywhere.
This could be critical for certain industries - anecdotal evidence from the financial services sector tells us that the industry is likely to stay working remotely for some time to come.
Last month, fnlondon.com reported that Kroll, the investigations and compliance consultants, published figures following a Freedom of Information request to the FCA. This showed that whistleblowing reports on workplace culture had risen by 35% in 2019. Breaches of standards of professional behaviour were the most commonly reported issue. It also cited a recent report which found that market manipulation reports to the FCA had risen year on year and up by 23% since 2017. There could be a risk of an uptick in these reports given the market volatility which has been related to Covid-19.
Whistleblowing reports can be an important pulse test of the culture of an organisation. Companies must ensure employees still feel connected and concerned to provide these vital reports - whether such reports concern pandemic-related health and safety concerns or relate to the way the business is being run.