Whistleblowing: Why It Should be Embraced and How to Make it Effective

By Suzanne Lucas, The Evil HR Lady, on July 15, 2019

In movies, whistleblowers uncover deep, dark company or political secrets: greedy corporate fatcats who will happily kill small children in the hopes of increasing shareholder profits. Naturally, managers hate whistleblowers and will do anything to stop them.Employees reporting problems or “whistleblowing” in the workplace can be very beneficial.

While obviously, such things do exist (and are the reason we need whistleblower protection laws), using the word whistleblower tends to make people think they are risking their livelihood if they expose problems at work. As such, why take the risk on something that may well be minor?

You actually want employees to bring up problems as soon as possible, and you don’t want them to have any fear in doing so. You’ll want to create a whistleblower program where employees can report problems anonymously and easily, but you also want to change your company culture so that reporting problems is seen as a good thing and not a bad thing.

Here’s what to do.

Be the Most Trustworthy Department in the Business

“I don’t know if this is sexual harassment but…”

“I have the most seniority and have positive performance reviews, but John got the promotion. I know it’s probably silly and there’s a good reason, but it feels like if I were white, I would have the job.”

How many employees speak in this unsure tone? How many people who feel this way will just suffer in silence, quit, or wait until it’s unbearable and unleash their pent up anger on social media?

You want every employee to speak up when it comes to reporting problems in the workplace, even when they are unsure. It may not be sexual harassment. John may have received the promotion because he was the most qualified. But, if it was sexual harassment or if skin color played a role in a promotion, you want to know. You want employees to speak up - to blow that whistle.

This means employee relations has to be the most trusted organization. No gossip. Prompt and thorough investigations. Clear resolutions. No playing favorites. Yes, HR is there to support the business, but that means the company as a whole - not just the managers.

Listen, investigate, decide and create change.

The earlier that whistle is blown, the easier it is to fix the problem. One sexually-tinged comment in a staff meeting may be fixed with apologies and instruction. If you ignore it, people begin to think that this behavior is acceptable, they continue, get worse and then you have a hostile work environment. You want people to tell you that the original joke made them uncomfortable.

Avoid a Culture of Punishment

HR tends to focus on the employee relations side of things, but you’ve got regulatory and safety issues in every business. People are scared of government agencies and don’t want derailed projects, so they cover up mistakes. These are included in the importance of addressing problems in the workplace.

Businesses make this worse with a “you’re a horrible person!” culture if someone makes a mistake. That just results in people covering up their mistakes. Covered errors need to be uncovered and can potentially cause a lot more problems than just fixing the fault as soon as it’s made (or discovered).

This can be a hard culture to create. Schools teach us that covering things up is the best policy--just look at how schools treat students who confess to accidentally violating a policy. There’s no mercy; just black and white reactions. You learn to hide mistakes, and that leads to problems within the business.

Make it clear--and train your managers--that the first response to a confessed mistake is the phrase, “thank you for letting me know.” The second is, “let’s fix this.”

Most mistakes really are minor if you tackle them at the moment. They only become problematic if you ignore them or cover them up.

Naturally, someone who consistently makes mistakes needs to be trained better, and it’s possible that you will eventually have to terminate someone who cannot do a consistent good (not perfect) job. Nevertheless, the termination isn’t for single mistakes, but for an inability to grow and develop in the job.

Invest in Compliance

When was the last time you had an OSHA consultant come in and check your compliance?

Were those crickets I just heard?

It costs money to have professionals seek out problems, but finding them before they become problems is precisely what you want to do.

Employment law is continually changing, and many rules and regulations are up to state and local laws, which means that your corporate office out-of-state may not be up-to-date on the laws affecting your satellite office. Court cases can change things rapidly, and one federal circuit may have one rule while another enforces the opposite.

The bottom line? Encourage people to come forward, and when they do, treat them with respect. Investigate all claims, fix problems as soon as possible and praise people who care enough about the company to bring up these issues. With that culture and an effective whistleblowing process, the term stops being a dirty word, and people feel comfortable talking through problems. That makes an excellent environment for everybody.

Ready to protect your people and your brand with your employee relations strategy? Schedule a demo to learn how HR Acuity can equip your organization with a better way to document, investigate and analyze employee issues.

Suzanne Lucas, The Evil HR Lady
Suzanne Lucas, The Evil HR Lady

Suzanne Lucas is a freelance writer who spent 10 years in corporate human resources, where she hired, fired, managed the numbers, and double-checked with the lawyers. She's sure not evil. She's super nice! Learn more about her at www.evilhrlady.org and email her directly for decidedly unevil advice.

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