How To Preserve Morale While Setting Up An Effective Whistleblower Process
Each year, the coaches in my company speak with many leaders who have been involved in a whistleblowing process. The trend seems to be growing as more companies are adopting whistleblowing processes and more staff are becoming inclined to use them.
I thought it might be useful to outline how to manage this process in an organization. The whistleblowing process is important and effective but not yet a perfect system. The employee who blows the whistle, the subject of the complaint and those who are interviewed may experience significant stress throughout the whistleblowing process.
The whistleblowing process was enacted to provide a safe and secure outlet to those wishing to disclose some wrongdoing with an organization. Whistleblower complaints normally go to a corporate ethics office, human resources or the board of trustees. A whistleblowing process can be incredibly helpful in protecting the organization’s or the public’s interest. The practice promotes a culture of transparency, compliance and fair treatment, especially when an individual feels there are no other options. And with the legal protection given to whistleblowers in recent history, it provides employees an outlet to voice their concerns around ethical or egregious organizational practices when there is concern about retribution.
The process can be very secretive. An employee who blows the whistle can be expected to give a detailed account of their complaint, usually without receiving any information about what steps will be taken, what has been communicated to whom or even what the outcome of the investigation turns out to be.
In addition, multiple employees may be interviewed as part of a whistleblowing investigation, but communication around details of the complaint may be limited, leaving people to wonder what actually happened and assuming the worst (which is not always accurate). Interviewees may feel guilty for disclosing information that they feel could hurt someone, or for an inability to provide information that could back up the whistle blower’s complaint. Leaders are not allowed to communicate much about the complaint or the process in order to protect the complainant. This secrecy is important for individual protection but can also erode trust and drive suspicion between employees and the organization.
What, then, can organizations and leaders do to ensure the whistleblowing process is as well managed as possible? Here are some tips to help ensure the process is effective and preserves staff morale:
• Communicate. All organizations should have a whistleblowing process in place, and it should be clearly communicated to all employees. Leaders and employees also need to be educated as to the impact on all parties after a complaint is lodged. The more people know about how the process, the better they can operate within that system.
• Company boards should be in the know. A board must be well educated on the whistleblowing process, so they are able to oversee the process and know how to manage it appropriately. This includes ensuring clear policies and processes, communication plans and quality controls, as well as overseeing related reconciliation and systemic fixes that may arise out of any investigation.
• Provide guidelines. It’s beneficial for employees to have guidelines of what cases are appropriate for a whistleblowing process. For example, issues such as personal disputes between an employee and their employer (i.e. a disagreement over vacation time) or simple mismanagement issues, such as poor leadership or supervision, do not warrant whistleblowing action. The whistleblower needs to believe that the actions taken by the employer pose a substantial risk to the organization or the public.
• Filter complaints. Organizations can create ethics committees or councils to help filter through complaints and determine next steps. This committee could help to ensure employees are being protected, and prevent undue investigations into complaints that could be moved toward problem solving and reconciliation between the complainant and the subject of the complaint.
• Involve experienced individuals. Investigators should be top-notch professionals who are well-informed and able to manage the process in a way that minimizes organizational damage. The best-case scenario often results in external investigators who are concerned with not only identifying the facts, but also with collecting data to understand more systemic issues within the organization and propose broader solutions. The investigator needs to be thorough, motivated by the facts and capable of managing organizational politics. They also need to delicately but firmly manage interviews where people can be emotional.
• Include a reconciliation component. This process could also be built into each complaint process to allow for the repair of damaged relationships and a re-building of trust. This should happen whether the subject of the complaint remains in the organization or not. As with investigators, external professional support is advised. Coaching can be very helpful in allowing all involved to move forward.
Whistleblowing can be a daunting process to enter into; however, the benefits of prioritizing the greater good outweigh the risks. Though it can be a stressful and taxing process, I hope these tips have helped you to understand how to manage this process in the most effective way for all involved.
Originally posted at Forbes.com.