Building trust through whistleblowing. From suspected to expected and protected.
In WhistleB’s recent survey of our customers, some 50% of the responses stated that building trust was the main benefit of having a secure, online whistleblowing system in place. This one response confirms a trend I’ve noted of late, trust is moving up the organisational agenda. As trust moves up, the spotlight is once again being shone on behaviours that deteriorate trust as well as actions and tools that help in protecting or building trust in organisations, including whistleblowing.
In this article we reflect on how it is that whistleblowing has become an accepted tool for combatting some of the greatest threats to organisational trust. These threats include corruption, fraud, discrimination, unsafe workplaces and environmental crime… the very issues that WhistleB helps customers to manage, day in, day out.
Suspected – Whistleblowing not historically a solution for building trust
Let me take you back to 2001 or so. Remember the high-profile corporate collapses and the subsequent crumbling of public trust in the corporate world? Governments became focused on re-building trust in organisations through regulation, and new laws were enacted such as Sarbanes-Oxley in the US. In hindsight, what is interesting for me is that even though a number of brave whistleblowers were pivotal in bringing the world’s attention to widespread corporate malpractice, whistleblowing was nonetheless viewed sceptically and was not generally held up as a feasible part of the building trust solution.
Let’s fast-forward to 2008 and the global financial crisis. As the world was once again re-awakened to a need for a crackdown on corporate corruption, whistleblowing began to be recognised as a viable option for early detection of corporate misconduct, with a focus on financial irregularities. Whistleblowing thus became somewhat more formalised, but most often in the form of a telephone hotline for receiving “tips”.
Nonetheless, whistleblowers were still viewed with suspicion. Regulations protecting their rights were close to non-existent and whistleblowers had a hard time remaining anonymous.
Even then, this was something Karin and I wanted to change. That’s why we built the WhistleB whistleblowing system differently – online, secure, robust and user-friendly, for progressive organisations that were serious about building trust and confidence in the workplace. And now attitudes are quickly changing as our recent customer study shows –whistleblowing is valuable in building trust.
Protected – regulations help in building trust in whistleblowing
What is it that has helped to build trust in whistleblowing? We have our opinions, based on years of experience helping customers with whistleblowing and influencing the market.
- Anti-corruption – a key whistleblowing issue on the global agenda, for companies, governments and organisations.
For example United Nations Global Compact referred to the as the world’s largest corporate sustainability initiative, the UN Global Compact is a call to companies to align strategies and operations with universal principles on human rights, labour, the environment and anti-corruption, and take actions that advance societal goals. The initiative aims to drive business awareness and action in support of achieving the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals by 2030. While the Global Compact does not have a focus on whistleblowing per se, it does focus on the very risks that whistleblowing is intended to address. As a result, the UN Global Compact has placed issues that are pertinent to whistleblowing high up on the agendas of many governments and businesses, and paved the way for advancing and building trust in whistleblowing systems.
- Perception of whistleblowers is changing.
Earlier this year, we published a post called The Whistleblower Christopher Wylie – a new hero is born. In that, we explain that we believe we are seeing a more positive attitude to whistleblowers and whistleblowing. One example is Christopher Wylie, the whistleblower from Cambridge Analytica who revealed that Facebook had leaked user information from 87 million accounts. He was heralded a hero in the media, and subsequently recruited by the clothing giant H&M for a role that includes developing ethical Artificial Intelligence, AI. This change in perception is largely thanks to media depiction of whistleblowers in the wake of the #metoo campaign in 2018.
- Whistleblowing legitimised by national and regional laws.
At the same time, increasing regulation that requires organisations to have whistleblowing systems in place, or regulation that protects the rights of whistleblowers, or regulations that forbid certain behaviours are all likely contributing factors to the rise in interest in whistleblowing. As recently as March, the European Parliament and the Member States reached a provisional agreement on new rules that will guarantee a high level of protection for whistleblowers who report breaches of EU law. The new rules are intended to help tackle fraud, corruption, corporate tax avoidance and damage to people’s health and the environment.
New International Standards on whistleblowing are currently in progress, which are an important step in agreeing on a common standard for building trust in whistleblowing systems.
The EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) has made organisations aware of the importance of protecting the personal data that they process. The data held in whistleblowing systems is very sensitive in nature and must have adequate security to enable proper data privacy. The fact that online whistleblowing systems can be made so much more secure than solutions such as e-mail and telephony has helped in building trust in such systems.
These are just a few examples of the many new sets of laws that are both building trust in the role of whistleblowing, and driving the market as organisational leaders are mandated to implement professional, secure, and above all, trusted whistleblowing systems.
Expected – Whistleblowing is a hygiene factor for building trust in an organisation
And this more whistleblowing-friendly context is the one in which organisations now operate. Forward-thinking organisations, such as our customers, are focused on doing business ethically, and have already embraced whistleblowing as an essential tool for building trust.
In what ways does a whistleblowing system contribute to trust? According to the responses in our customer study, a secure whistleblowing system helps to build trust in an organisation’s brand, gain trust from external parties due to greater transparency, and importantly generate trust amongst employees that they work for an organisation that is serious about its Code of Conduct.
We will focus on building trust amongst employees. One of our customers said the following:
“This is a good tool to promote good corporate culture where people can see that their voice is heard and actions are taken accordingly.”
Most people want to work in a workplace where they know they are safe, and where ethics are taken seriously. While leaders may communicate plenty about the organisational Code of Conduct and culture (and they should), a whistleblower system makes things more tangible for employees. The more senior management and the board advocate the possibility of whistleblowing and underline its value for the organisation, the more employees understand that this is an organisation that is serious about following up on the Code of Conduct, and that everybody’s everyday actions either erode or build trust.
The technical perspective is also important in building trust and confidence in the workplace. The potential information that whistleblower reports contain can be invaluable to leaders, but very sensitive, and impossible to obtain early without the whistleblower. However, many potential whistleblowers fear the repercussions of speaking up, and fear that their concern will not be taken seriously. Consequently, if they do not have confidence in the system keeping their identities safe, and the case being processed appropriately, then they will not dare to report the necessary information. This is where the technical and security aspects of the system can build that trust through making the whistleblower technically untraceable. Leaders need to describe the strict data security and other technical and privacy measures embedded within the system, and make it clear that employees may report anonymously and remain anonymous throughout any dialogue and investigation.
There should be no doubt that both the person and the data are protected, in compliance with all applicable regulations. This is also a reassurance for the organisational leaders too. They need to be confident that a whistleblowing system will help them reduce the compliance risks of processing whistleblowing data.
Finally, a whistleblowing system builds trust on the part of external stakeholders, customers, suppliers, board members or investors, as it indicates that the organisation is serious about ethical business and being transparent. It illustrates just one concrete way that the organisation is prepared to act on important global issues such as corruption and discrimination.
Our mission is to continue to build greater trust in whistleblowing systems
While we are proud of the fantastic work that our customers are doing, we are aware that our customers so far have been the more progressive, forward-thinking kind of organisation. There are still plenty of companies across all sectors that are only at the beginning of their journeys to become more sustainable, ethical businesses, and have yet to understand how openness to whistleblowing can help them in building trust.
This is why we will focus on spreading good examples over the coming year, on helping organisations to learn from each other, on sharing our experience and on driving standards that share best practices for whistleblowing. As part of this, WhistleB has recently signed the UN Global Compact to indicate our commitment to more sustainable business. Ethical, sustainable business has always been our guiding light; it is our very essence and what we help customers work towards on a daily basis. However, there is always room for improvement and being part of the UN Global Compact is a reminder for us to check that we are doing all we can towards building trust in the world’s organisations. It is also a way for us to encourage others to join in for more sustainable, trusted and still profitable business.
Whistleblowers have gained in status, some of them reaching top positions. New laws are emerging to protect whistleblowers. Companies are beginning to understand how encouraging and safeguarding employees and external stakeholders who dare to raise a concern about something they suspect is vital for retaining or building trust in their brand. Yes, building trust is slowly making its way up the agenda, and whistleblowing is now right by its side to help.
For more information on how a whistleblowing system can help you in building trust in your company please contact:
Gunilla Hadders, WhistleB Co-founder and Senior Adviser
+46 (0)70214 88 73