Listening to staff is a fundamental part of the human resources function. Only with clear communication will the business know if something is – or isn’t – working well. While this may seem obvious, recently-published data suggests European organisations are overlooking one key communication channel; whistleblowing.

NAVEX Global’s 2020 Regional Whistleblowing Hotline Benchmark Report* reveals that European organisations have the lowest overall whistleblowing reporting rate globally, with only 0.5 reports received for every 100 employees. This indicates businesses in the region don’t have established or effective whistleblowing practices as the norm. This is a concerning finding, as all teams, including HR, should actively be embracing reporters as an early warning system for potential issues. It’s even more important this year, given the challenges the workforce is facing due to disruption brought about by the pandemic, and the increasing pressure on businesses to demonstrate they’re ethical, diverse and sustainable.

Debunking the myths of whistleblowing

Overshadowed by a few sensationalist headlines, whistleblowing is unfairly characterised by the myths that surround it. Many organisations are still under the misguided impression that whistleblowers are ‘troublemakers’, and believe that having a hotline can add more work for HR teams. In reality, whistleblowers do the exact opposite. They can act as an early warning system that can shed light on sensitive issues organisations may be unaware of. For example, they can highlight hidden, but extremely damaging issues, like harassment, early on, thereby preventing escalation further down the line. Seeing reporters as valuable sources of insight should help to shift negative perceptions that are currently more prominent in Europe. This is important to encourage potential reporters to feel confident coming forward with issues, rather than fearful of speaking up.

In fact, the findings in the report raise concerns that workers who go through the whistleblowing process may be discouraged from reporting a problem again. Taking a long time to investigate and resolve a case raised by a reporter, which is a particular challenge in Europe, could be a contributing factor for this hesitation. Which is less surprising when we see that the median case closure time in Europe is 83 days and slower than in any other region.

Concerningly, COVID-19 is likely to see this timeframe of case closures increase even further, due to the limitations of remote working and health-related absences. For example, in a sensitive matter, such as sexual misconduct, the investigator may still wish to interview, in person, all the employees involved. If someone has to isolate, these meetings will inevitably have to be delayed, or conducted remotely, bringing with it a whole set of new challenges. What’s more, with many people working outside of the office, gathering evidence is more challenging, and may take longer. The issue with this delay is that it can severely damage the reporters’ trust in the whistleblowing process. Changing this perception should be a priority for HR.

One way to ensure long closure times don’t breed mistrust and frustration is having a clear line of communication. Keeping the employee updated with what has happened with their report, and what will happen next, is crucial. This will help to avoid workers feeling isolated or ‘in the dark’ about their case, and significantly contribute to a better perception of whistleblowing as a process.

What’s stopping employees from blowing the whistle? 

To help staff feel more comfortable reporting issues, HR teams must also work with business leaders to address retaliation. This needs to be a priority, as retaliation rates are rising. The latest report highlights that reports of retaliation have increased by 22 percent in Europe since 2018. The current economic climate could exacerbate this concern, as workers may worry that blowing the whistle will increase their chances of being included in future cuts or hurt their career progression. HR teams must work with other business leads to publicly acknowledge that they will not tolerate these or any other forms of retaliation. Furthermore, management should be given clear guidance on how to identify retaliation, before it damages people’s trust in whistleblowing.

Part of this guidance should include strategies for identifying cases of retaliation in the current climate. As Ed Mills, Head of Employment, Travers Smith LLP explains:  “Certain types of retaliation – such as physical violence or exclusion from social events – are less likely to happen in the current remote working environment. However, it’s likely whistleblowers believe retaliation could still happen in an underhanded and less provable way. Which will not only be making reporters nervous while working remotely but also create a sense of worry about returning to the office environment.” To tackle this, Mills advises businesses “ditch the whistleblowing procedures that no one uses because they believe they’ll be frowned upon or retaliated against, and, instead, implement empowering policies that create a culture where speaking up is not only encouraged but expected. To facilitate this, managers need to be trained to be more receptive and encourage employees to raise issues.”

It is essential that there is transparent communication, which makes it clear that the company sees whistleblowing as a positive exercise. Katharine James, CSMP®, a Senior Leader in the BBC and currently the Head of Governance in the Safety, Security and Resilience Department has found success investing in a completely transparent policy around whistleblowing.

Communication is key when it comes to dealing with reports. Some reports can be hugely complex. At the BBC we have people working globally, so from Nairobi to Afghanistan to the UK office, we have made sure that we are constantly communicating, to everyone, regarding the resources that are in place for them to report. This also includes communication around the actual term ‘whistleblowing’ which can have some negative connotations, particularly within our International bureaus.

Katherine and her team have also made sure everyone at the BBC is aware of the organisation’s zero tolerance policy on retaliation, which has helped increase confidence in the process.

The need for greater legal directives

Having an established process that facilitates and encourages reporting will create a more supportive culture and strengthen businesses’ risk and compliance management strategies. However, evolving legislation may ultimately force organisations that are yet to realise the benefits of whistleblowing to change their approach. The EU Whistleblowing Directive, which protects whistleblowers in EU member states, will come into effect in 2021. This legislation is a step forward because it will require organisations of virtually every size and shape to implement meaningful whistleblowing procedures, and adopt protective measures for those who do speak up. Although the UK will not have the same legislation post Brexit, promoting this culture of speaking up is still imperative and organisations that create programmes that support and actively embrace whistleblowing, will reap the benefits.

Embracing the benefits of whistleblowing

In the meantime, organisations should consider how to better utilise their employees as their eyes and ears on the ground. After all, whistleblowing provides organisations with insight into what’s happening, and, most importantly, the ability to do something about it. HR teams must work with other business departments to assess whether they’re giving whistleblowing the attention it deserves; assessing how comfortable employees feel with the idea of speaking up, and what has stopped them from doing so before. Ultimately, by embracing, instead of dissuading reports, businesses will only benefit; from learning more about the workforce, to solving critical issues before they damage a company’s culture and reputation.

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As Managing Director for NAVEX Global’s international business, Giles is responsible for the consolidation and expansion of the organisation’s presence across the EMEA, MENA and APAC regions. With almost thirty years’ experience in driving international growth, he has successfully led teams internationally within the SaaS, data, and media and telecoms sectors. A proud exponent of customer-centric leadership, Giles strives to ensure that NAVEX Global delivers great products and service to every customer.