Listen Up! The future of whistleblowing

I commented in an earlier blog post about “speak up” arrangements becoming the new norm - at least in large UK organisations. We are seeing corporate attitudes to speak up arrangements evolve from such procedures being narrowly viewed as a legal and compliance matter to becoming integral to a “good” workplace culture.

So, looking into the near future, what developments and trends are gaining momentum? I’ve considered below some of the main areas in which we foresee greater traction across sectors in the coming months and years for large organisations.

1 Interaction – not transaction!

An interesting development has been the increased focus on understanding and seeking to improve the experience of both the reporter and those who receive and deal with reports (who I refer to below as “listeners”).

Often in the past the reporting of a concern via an internal or external reporting channel was set up to be a very transactional, and sometimes adversarial process, with the listener focussed on extracting information from the reporter with little empathy and often more concerned about avoiding legal risk in relation to the reporter than getting to the bottom of the concern.

Due to organisations investing in training listeners, we are seeing a change in emphasis towards encouraging the raising of concerns and, indeed an increase in reporters being thanked for doing so. There is a growing recognition that more communication and interaction between reporters and listeners leads to a better experience for all parties and is a more effective way of extracting relevant information.

In particular, creating a better experience for reporters and listeners through providing and seeking feedback has been shown to reduce certain risks associated with reporters. For example, the likelihood of a reporter making a report externally (e.g. to the press or a regulator).

Even the evolution of language used in some policies and processes – moving away from referring to “whistleblowers” to the more neutral “reporters” and starting to refer to those they report to as “listeners” is changing perceptions and embedding speak up arrangements within corporate culture as a matter of best practice as opposed to a legalistic process (and all that entails).

In line with this trend we foresee speaking up arrangements developing to allow for greater dialogue and engagement between reporters and listeners.

2 Integral to culture

No-one can have failed to notice that workplace culture – and, specifically, engendering a healthy culture - is now a major focus – and challenge - for many large organisations.

For a number of regulators (notably within financial services), driving better cultures within the firms they supervise has been and remains high on the regulatory agenda as a matter of risk management and prevention of harm.

The Corporate Governance Code published in July 2018 and accompanying Guidance on Board Effectiveness also makes it a matter of board-level focus across all sectors.

The Guidance provides that board leadership should establish the company’s purpose, value and strategy and satisfy itself that these and its culture are aligned. All directors must act with integrity, lead by example and promote the desired culture. “Culture’, is an overarching concept encompassing many different facets of how an organisation runs in practice – such as governance and leadership, diversity and inclusion and health and wellbeing.

There isn’t a one-sized-fits-all approach. Nor is there a single “right” culture. So, while there isn’t one model, the Guidance identifies some common attributes of a healthy culture. These include – honesty, openness, respect, adaptability, reliability, recognition, acceptance of challenge, accountability and a sense of shared purpose.

Equally, the Guidance identifies some signs of a possible culture problem including factors such as low levels of meaningful engagement or dialogue between leadership and employees and lack of openness to challenge.

As a result, we are seeing corporates invest more resources into providing systems and channels that allow people to raise a range of issues. Furthermore, given that key markers of a healthy culture include attributes such as openness and transparency, we are seeing a far more inclusive approach being taken with reporting arrangements widening out the scope of who can report and the types of concerns and matters that can be reported.

Our prediction is that speak up channels will increasingly be utilised as a net to harvest information - with appropriate “triage” systems in place to ensure that the information gathered is dealt with appropriately, whether that is through a legal, HR, compliance channel or in some cases with no formal action deemed necessary at that stage.

3 Investment in training

As mentioned already, we have seen much greater demand for training aimed at people within firms who may have reports made to them, whether because they are a line manager (many “speak up” policies refer reporters to their line manager as a first port of call) or because their role involves them playing a part in the operation of speak up arrangements.

To date, increased demand for training has largely been within the financial services sector and a key driver is likely to be regulatory training requirements within SYSC18. However, we predict the trend for access to tailored and regular training will continue across a wider range of sectors not only because of the cultural and ethical drivers referred to above but also in light of legal changes that are likely to be implemented as a result of the EU Directive on whistleblowing.

4 Innovative ways of reporting and interacting – technology and AI

Our research showed a greater uptake in reporting over internet portal channels. There are several technology solutions on the market not only aimed at making reporting easier but also that assist in collating and analysing data. In line with the wider approach being taken to the types of issues that can be raised through speak up channels and greater scrutiny on what trends or issues such information may show, we foresee greater investment in management information solutions.