4 Ways to Protect Whistleblowers from Retaliation

4 Ways to Protect Whistleblowers from Retaliation

Retaliation is a true fear for many who just want to speak-up about wrongdoing

A business that welcomes open and honest feedback from employees who are able to speak-up about wrongdoing, can root out issues and fix them.

This is a business that will thrive.

All too often, people who point to suspicious behaviours, possibly illegal activity, or other issues that could devastate a company, are punished for their efforts. 

Retaliation comes in many forms. Some are more obvious, like demotions or employment termination. Some can be more indirect. Marginalization, impromptu negative performance reports, and the continued assigning of unwanted shifts or tasks to the whistleblower are examples of retaliation. Here are ways you can protect whistleblowers from retaliation in the workplace.

Implement a Hotline

Mary Alice Pizana, Human Resources Manager at Herrman and Herrman PLLC, says protecting the anonymity of the whistleblower goes a long way in preventing retaliation. She suggests using a reporting hotline.

"Creating a safe work environment for team members is critical to any company's success. Any organization can accomplish this by creating an anonymous hotline for whistleblowers to speak freely about what is causing the toxic work environment. Companies can then encourage team members to use the hotline through emails and signs around the office. For this hotline to be successful, leadership must hold everyone accountable for breaking any policies and, if necessary, create new policies for the workplace."

According to David Reischer, Attorney & CEO of LegalAdvice.com , specific conditions must be met for the hotline to be successful.

"In order to be successful, the hotline should be available 24 hours a day and available all year round. In addition, the telephone number should be displayed prominently on any corporate posters or other official corporate communications.

It is important that an employer make substantial efforts to communicate to employees to report any wrongdoing by affirmatively and consistently promoting the telephone number. It is always a good idea to emphasize that a whistleblower is not hurting the company by reporting any wrongful behaviour but rather is acting morally and legally. If there is a reward or compensation for calling the hotline, then that fact should be promoted too. It might also be a good idea to promote that anonymous tips are always welcome and that the company always strives to protect a whistleblower from retaliation and reprisal."

Proper Training

Bradley Bonnen, the Founder & CEO of iFlooded Restoration , stresses that anti-retaliation training needs to happen at all levels of the company.

"Any anti-retaliation program must include effective training for employees, all levels of management, and the board of directors (if applicable). Training is critical because it equips managers and employees with the knowledge, skills, and tools they need to notice, report, prevent, and/or appropriately resolve dangers, potential legal violations, and retribution. Workers and managers should be taught about the specific federal whistleblower protection laws and company policies that apply to them, as well as their rights under the laws, how to exercise those rights using available internal and external protection programs, and the organizational benefits of doing so. These principles, as well as related abilities, behaviours, and responsibilities to act, should be learned by managers. Training should be delivered in an accessible language(s) and at a level that the intended audience can comprehend.

What constitutes retaliation, including actions such as firing or laying off, demoting, denying overtime or promotion, disciplining, denying benefits, failing to hire or rehire, reducing pay or hours, and blacklisting, as well as common but less overt behaviours like ostracizing, mocking, intimidating, and making false accusations of poor performance, are covered in training. Anti-retribution training for managers should include, at a minimum, skills for defusing conflict, problem resolution, and stopping retaliation in a workgroup, in addition to the employee training themes described above."

Strong Policies with Consequences

Stan C. Kimer, President of Total Engagement Consulting by Kimer, promotes a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to retaliation in the workplace. Zero-tolerance policies outline expectations of anti-retaliation behaviours at all levels of the company.

"Companies and organizations need very strong "no-excuse" anti-retaliation policies that give human resource professionals the full power to take strong action against retaliation. They should include the immediate firing of anyone who retaliates, including all the way up to the CEO if they retaliate. Two practices I advocate:

1) Making a public pronouncement of someone fired for retaliation sends a strong visible message to others that they are safe to report unethical behaviour, and it signals to those who are tempted to retaliate that they should absolutely not even think about it.

2) The Human Resource profession, through their association arm SHRM (Society of Human Resource Mgt), should revoke the certification of any HR professional who does not take swift and meaningful action against those who retaliate. Far too often, HR professionals will protect senior executives who act unethically instead of supporting the whistleblower, and that should not be tolerated within the HR profession."

Workplace Culture

Steve Scott, CTO of Spreadsheet Planet, says that cultivating a work environment where people feel safe to report internal issues is necessary for a thriving business. Even minor forms of retaliation, like marginalization, can lead to poor workplace culture.

"When employees are scared to report internal issues, they may take their grievances to regulators instead, depriving organizations of the opportunity to the issue.

The effectiveness with which the employer follows the policy on compliance determines if there is a culture of fear of retaliation. The tone at the top, as well as the tone in the middle, is crucial. Employers should revisit, revitalize, and reaffirm their commitment to a strong compliance culture on a regular basis.

Fear of punishment can inhibit internal reporting, depriving a corporation of crucial information regarding internal misconduct.

These circumstances frequently escalate to the point where the company becomes a law enforcement target. A major inquiry can harm a company's brand, and result in considerable legal costs and criminal charges against the company's leadership, and translate into revenue loss owing to the termination of important business partnerships."

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Whistleblower Security designs and implements ethics hotlines to help companies identify suspicious behaviours through anonymous reports. Our agents are available 24/7, every day of the year. Contact us for a customized hotline specifically for your business.

photo Amanda Nieweler

Amanda Nieweler

Amanda writes for WhistleBlower Security about ethics, compliance, workplace culture, and whistleblower hotlines. Amanda brings her nearly two decades of risk and compliance experience to the WBS blog where she is dedicated to helping people and companies promote speak-up cultures.