Employers often think of whistleblowers as complainers or traitors — taking internal issues and airing them to higher-ups or the general public. But what if it didn’t have to be that way? What would happen if instead of viewing whistleblowers as troublesome malcontents, employers viewed them as important assets for improving the organization?
Although the word "whistleblower" may bring to mind names like Edward Snowden, whistleblowing also can involve an employee’s complaints about a company’s internal operations. When those concerns are not addressed by HR or other management, a whistleblower may feel there’s no other choice but to go public, bringing unwelcome scrutiny and criticism to the organization.
Reframing your view
Some experts propose that by reframing your view of whistleblowers, you can improve outcomes for your organization. Brad Cave, partner at Holland & Hart, has been making this pitch to employers for some time, imploring them to shift the corporate mindset from one of defensiveness to one that encourages a culture of improvement and welcomes critical feedback.
“If you permit argument and encourage the airing of views from a variety of perspectives, you’re more likely to get a better outcome, with better ideas and better cohesiveness,” he told HR Dive.
Ken Broda-Bahm, senior litigation consultant at Persuasion Strategies, has both written and presented with Cave about this hypothesis. Whistleblowing — reframed as highlighting potential problems — needs to be normalized in an organization, he says. By making feedback an expectation, whistleblowing has less drama and the whistleblower is no longer seen as a saint or sinner, but as a regular employee, doing his or her job.
An whistleblowing incident can be a distraction for employees at any company. And incidences of whistleblowing are on the rise, which might not be a bad thing, because it means problems are being brought to the forefront, Broda-Bahm says.
On the other hand, that rise may signal that employees are increasingly willing to come forward because they're more aware of retaliation protections. Retaliation claims are on the rise at the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, where complaints may focus on those retaliated against for speaking up about sexual harassment or race discrimination.
Following a whistleblowing incident, employers must respond carefully. Managers must be trained to refrain from illegal retaliation, and employers should be prepared for the possibility that others will be emboldened to come forward with similar complaints.
But whistleblowing is a sign of deeper trouble within an organization, says Carol Lee Andersen, president of Questback, a software platform for employee engagement. “By the time it’s gotten to whistleblowing, you have an integrity failure in the organization,” she said.
Ideally, employers would be open to hearing and addressing problems before they reach the whistleblowing stage, she said. But for some companies, that will require a change in culture.
Implementing the culture shift
Employers have an opportunity to develop a culture where bringing up problems is not seen as the work of a troublemaker, but the responsibility of a conscientious employee. This requires establishing a culture of trust and loyalty.
Andersen, Broda-Bahm and Cave suggest specific actions for creating that culture:
- Get CEO buy-in. Upper management must lead the shift, emphasizing that raising concerns about ethics, compliance and inappropriate conduct is everyone’s responsibility because it benefits the organization, Cave said. CEOs should encourage open communication in all aspects of the organization, and be sure to back it up.
- Create a policy. HR should maintain a policy that allows employees to register concerns and tells them how to do so, whether that's a suggestion box or a formal complaint procedure. Make sure the process has a solid framework, Andersen says.
- Ensure the new culture comes across in day-to-day interactions. Most organizations will have a policy that prohibits retaliation, but that’s not enough if the culture still supports it, Broda-Bahm says. Likewise, a company that has a policy to encourage suggestions yet does not welcome dialogue in meetings has a culture that undermines the stated policy.
- Address employee concerns promptly and transparently. This includes following up with the outcome, Andersen said.
- Highlight the benefits of employee feedback. Leaders should do this and also share the improvements made as a result, Cave says.
- Assess whether complaints are coming in. HR needs to know whether workers are making use of the policy and procedure, Broda-Bahm says. If they’re not, that may not be a good thing: it could indicate that employees are worried about retaliation. Employers should make sure the organization has the structure, communication, training and reinforcement — both overtly and subtly — to ensure employees will come forward.
- Separate the complaint from the informant. While some whistleblowers may be disgruntled or under-performing employees, they may still have valid concerns, Cave says. View those issues as separate.
- Be prepared for pushback. Change can be unnerving and leaders may worry about finding out about problems they’d rather not know about, Andersen says. But while this process may bring up undiscovered issues, leaders need to understand that it gives the company the chance to fix them, and helps limit risk.
By creating an environment where issues are raised, heard, respected and addressed before they reach a boiling point, employers can help potential whistleblowers become helpful informants instead, Andersen said. With that new mindset, employers have a better opportunity to protect the company’s integrity, improve operations with new insight and reduce risk.