by Andrew Breakwell, Head of Sales UK/IE/NL at EQS Group
It seems like it shouldn’t be an issue: if you see something wrong at work, you should say something. Unfortunately, not all of us do. A recent IBE survey suggests 67% of UK employees raised concerns about misconduct, the highest of the eight countries surveyed, but this still leaves much to be desired. It begs the question: why do employees not speak up?
We have combined our experience of implementing whistleblowing programmes in organisations and research to bring you 10 reasons why employees do not raise concerns of misconduct or wrongdoing and some strategies for encouraging a speak up culture.
1. ‘I felt it was none of my business’
Anecdotally and according to IBE’s survey, employees (particularly junior or new ones) feel it is not their place to raise concerns. The saying ‘that’s above my pay grade’ comes to mind. Compliance and HR professionals must ensure that all employees understand that ‘speaking up’ is their responsibility. Clear and frequent communication at several employee touch points such as employee inductions, trainings, appraisals and team meetings can help with this.
2. ‘I thought it was common practice’
You only have to google ‘common practice’ to discover numerous news stories about highly unethical practices within organisations that have become normalised over time. For this reason, it is vital for organisations to regularly train employees on what the organisation considers acceptable behaviour and what to report. Engaging policies and training are the base for ensuring all employees have robust decision-making frameworks. This starts with adequate policy management to ensure all employees have read and attested to the internal rules and regulatory requirements.
3. ‘I did not believe that corrective action would be taken’
Confidence in the reporting channels is critical. When employees have built up the courage to report a concern, it can be demoralising when they do not receive adequate feedback on the outcome of the concerns raised. Our survey revealed that around 30% of organisations communicated the outcomes to the reporter. While maintaining confidentiality, it is beneficial to communicate the outcome of the investigation in some form (anonymised case study or direct feedback) demonstrating that concerns are taken seriously and investigated.
4. ‘I didn’t think it was a serious issue at the time’
There’s often uncertainty about what should be reported and at what stage. It is the responsibility of the organisation to adopt a culture that encourages reports no matter how trivial. It is better to be safe than sorry, especially when being sorry could mean reputational and financial loss for the company. An anonymous or confidential channel to ‘ask a question’ can help connect employees to Compliance or HR when they are uncertain about what is ethical or legal without submitting a formal whistleblowing concern.
5. ‘I was afraid that reporting may cause bad blood and acrimony at my workplace’
The labour laws across Europe attempt to protect whistleblowers from retaliation. However, whistleblowers may be retaliated against after raising a concern that may adversely affect their colleagues. The environment can quickly become hostile for whistleblowers if an organisation does not have a robust speak up culture. Providing confidential and anonymous channels can help ensure that concerns are raised and investigated discreetly, therefore minimising the risk of retaliation. It’s best practice to track the progress of reporters post-raising concerns. Key indicators may be: is the reporter still in the business 12 months later? Have they been demoted or promoted? Have they taken extended sick leave?
6. ‘I thought that everyone at the top was already aware of the existing state of affairs’
There is often a perception that the board or senior management are aware of unethical practices within their organisation. However, it is often board members and senior managers that are desperate for greater visibility of risks within the organisation. Front-line staff can offer valuable insights to senior managers/board through whistleblowing channels that skip hierarchy. Sophisticated case management systems can also provide detailed reporting so that management can keep abreast of the issues.
7. ‘I fear being perceived as disloyal or not a team player’
No one wants to be perceived as disloyal or labelled as a ‘bad cultural fit’ if they speak up. It is paramount that organisations clearly communicate that speaking up about misconduct is integral to the long-term success of the organisation. It protects against reputational damage and financial loss. The message itself and frequency of communications are key success factors in dispelling these perceptions.
8. ‘There is no system for anonymous reporting’
The Whistleblowing Report 2019, suggests that for companies that provide the option of reporting anonymously, 58% of initial reports are anonymous. Without anonymous reporting channels, that information may not have come to light. Though for some organisations anonymity can present challenges in investigating concerns, digital reporting systems now exist that allow employees to report completely anonymously, have two-way anonymous communication and submit supporting evidence.
9. ‘I felt I might jeopardise my job’
According to IBE’s Ethics at Work survey, this was the main reason employees did not speak up in Italy, Spain, Switzerland and the UK. In aviation, there’s a focus on ‘reporting culture’ and ‘just culture’. This means cultivating an environment where people can report safety concerns without fear of blame or retaliation. This is replicated in other sectors, however raising concerns can still lead to reporters being fired, refused promotions, demoted and even blacklisted from their industry. It is no wonder the decision to raise concerns can be difficult for some employees.
Organisation must offer assurances – starting with top management – that raising concerns will not adversely affect the careers of their employees. In addition, recent legislative initiatives such as the EU directive and new Australian regulation offer reporters more protections and penalties for organisations that fail to prevent retaliation against reporters.
10. ‘I don’t know who to report to and how’
Communication, communication, communication. Our research suggests that around one third of companies communicate their whistleblowing channels once a year. It’s vital to have numerous well-published reporting channels. Creative communications such as giveaways, videos, digital banners can help keep speaking up top-of-mind. Furthermore, the importance of a speak up culture and an overview on the reporting channels should be anchored in the code of ethics, the intranet and every onboarding training.