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Seven Tips to Create Effective Whistleblower Policies

Seven Tips to Create Effective Whistleblower Policies

Whistleblower policies are the pillars of any organization, providing a mechanism for internal control systems and compliance. Without transparency about wrongdoings, a company can fall apart quickly as they face scandal and financial and legal repercussions beyond repair.

Encouraging a speak-up culture is more than just telling employees to voice their concerns. You must implement a framework that clearly defines who can come forward, what and when to report, where and how to take this action, and why transparency is essential. This policy should keep whistleblowers at the forefront and continually prove that there’s a place for their voice.

These are just a few things to remember when creating effective whistleblower policies. Let’s explore some tips in more detail.

Table of Contents

What is a Whistleblower Policy?

A whistleblower is any employee or relevant stakeholder who reports misconduct in an organization. Whistleblower policies outline the definitions, protections, and expectations governing this course of action.

What is the Purpose of a Whistleblower Policy?

Whistleblower policies aim to encourage employees and others to voice concerns. They provide essential tools, such as guaranteeing anonymity and validating the reporting of all types of misconduct, to protect these individuals from retaliation and other threatening encounters.

With these standards in place, the ideal outcome is complete transparency and adequate investigations and solutions at all levels of an organization. Preventing corruption, fraud, harassment, and other types of misconduct is essential for the operation of any business. Once scandals like these arise, they can be damaging financially, legally, and reputationally.

Essentially, ensuring the integrity and longevity of your company starts with creating the space for whistleblowers to speak-up so these issues can be dealt with effectively and promptly before they compromise the entire organization.

Is it a Legal Requirement to have a Whistleblowing Policy?

Many organizations face regulatory or legislative mandates governing the receipt of and response to whistleblower reports. Public companies are required to have whistleblower policies and processes in place, like an ethics helpline, to comply with the Sarbanes Oxley Act in the United States and Multilateral Instrument 52-110 in Canada.

Depending on where you are in the world, there are various protections for whistleblowers that companies should abide by with these comprehensive outlines. For example, section 425.1 of the Criminal Code of Canada states that as an employer in a position of authority, you cannot take disciplinary action against employees to deter them from reporting misconduct.

Other whistleblower protections in Canada fall under the Public Servants Disclosure Protection Act (PSDPA). Specific provinces may also have their unique laws and regulations, such as British Columbia’s Public Interest Disclosure Act (PIDA)

Some laws also outline retribution for organizational offences, such as the US Organizational Corporate Sentencing Guidelines.

It’s important to understand that there may be nuances between jurisdictions, so ensuring your policies comply with all relevant laws is the key to your company’s long-lasting success.

Employee Tips are Key to Detecting Misconduct

A well-designed whistleblower program can help organizations find and deter fraud. Many employees have firsthand knowledge or have at least observed workplace misconduct. Furthermore, many would be more inclined to report if they were guaranteed anonymity and were confident they would not suffer retaliation.

Fraud and other misconducts do not choose one type of business over another. Where there are people, there could be unethical behaviour following right behind. Whistleblower reporting software is used to connect employees and management in a way that offers the safety net of anonymous reporting. They also provide a central repository, or case management tool, for relevant parties to have a holistic view of the internal corporate culture of the organization and any trends or hotspots that need to be dealt with.

As mentioned above, it's important to encourage employees to report suspected wrongdoing before it can get out of hand. Creating a trusting and transparent internal corporate culture starts with whistleblower policies.

How to Create a Whistleblower Policy

Writing whistleblower policies for the first time can be challenging if you don’t know where to start. Generally, you should consider the following questions as you develop your document:

  • What’s your purpose for this whistleblowing program? Outlining your goals can help you clearly communicate standards. For example, your goals as an organization may be to encourage ethics reporting, protect anonymity, and ensure every report is investigated.
  • How will you show your commitment as an organization? Remember, you should always lead by example and demonstrate your commitment to transparency and zero tolerance for misconduct.
  • Who is included in your policy, and what types of conduct are viable for reporting? Trust comes with clear, comprehendible definitions. Think about who and what is included in your document to avoid confusion.
  • How will you ensure adequate corrective action when whistleblowers speak up? People report misconduct with the hopes of investigation and rectification.
  • How can you ensure your policy establishes compliance with laws and regulations? Remember that there are legal protections for whistleblowers. Ensure your policy follows all relevant laws by reviewing it with an attorney.

Once you’ve considered these angles, you’ll have a better idea of what this process will entail and what you need to include when you write your policies.

Tips to Create Effective Whistleblower Policies

So, what makes a strong policy? Whistleblower policies not only provide a platform and space for employees and other stakeholders to voice their concerns, but it also demonstrates the company’s commitment to a speak-up culture and outlines the expectations for all levels of an organization. Here are some of the characteristics of solid whistleblower policies:

Clearly Defines Retaliation

This is probably the most crucial step because employees may keep their knowledge to themselves or take it outside the organization if they feel threatened.

Employees should feel encouraged and confident to speak up about ethical concerns as soon as possible without fearing retaliation, harassment or discrimination. Trusting a business’s whistleblower program without hesitation is essential to motivate employees to report suspected unethical misconduct internally and not take their concerns outside the company.

Anti-retaliation communication should include the following:

  • Zero tolerance for any type of retaliatory or discriminatory action, like termination of employment. Retaliation to any complaint is prohibited and could result in serious disciplinary action.
  • Outline the action that your organization will take if whistleblowers are threatened or victimized.
  • Zero tolerance for employees discussing discrimination allegations with each other. This could result in unintentional retaliation.
  • Continued support to employees after they have filed a complaint. This includes supporting the employee mentally in their daily tasks and maintaining their existing privileges from before they spoke up.

Educates All Stakeholders

Training is crucial. The success of whistleblower reporting software and ethics helplines is based on a well-written policy. Communication of the policy is critical for follow-through at all levels. Employees need to know where and how to report any wrongdoing. Training all stakeholders helps reduce the “we were never told that” excuse. Education should focus on teaching what types of unethical activities are appropriate for reporting and those that are out of scope.

Make training relatable to all stakeholders because if you have a global footprint, you will have a diverse group of employees with differing cultures, language expectations, and education. Make sure you take the time to create educational materials that are accessible to everyone. Here’s what training should teach and communicate:

  • Identification and categorization of an actual ethics breach.
  • Where to go to make a report.
  • Understanding how to use the whistleblower hotline correctly.
  • Know what to expect from taking action, like what kind of feedback you’ll get and how to track the progress of your case.
  • Outline who will receive the reports.

You should consistently communicate your whistleblowing program to remind employees that this is an option for them. Make use of newsletters and company-wide announcements to get this message across. Frequent communication also reinforces your commitment to supporting those who come forward with concerns.

When you train employees, not only are they made aware of what the hotline is for and how to report concerns, but they also become aware of expectations from them on how to conduct themselves at work. It’s equally important for companies to follow through on any potential consequences for exiting the boundaries of the policy. And if you reassure employees that their concerns will be heard and responded to, companies need to ensure they do just that, or your program and hotline will lose their effectiveness and credibility.

Reiterates the Anonymity of the Program

For employees to feel comfortable, they must have the opportunity to remain anonymous. Most employees who report misconduct don't want to provide their identity when they file an allegation for fear of retaliation. If you're going to encourage reporting, employees must trust the program's anonymity!

Your case management system should accommodate a two-way anonymous dialogue with the whistleblower. This way, management can ask more questions and receive clarifying information from the whistleblower without either party revealing their identity.

The following are some benefits of promoting anonymous whistleblowing:

  • Encourages a transparent speak-up culture
  • Demonstrates trust in the organization
  • Prevents violations and legal battles
  • Reinforces an ethical culture

Covers a Wide Range of Conduct

Your whistleblower policy should apply to a wide range of reportable conduct, including financial, accounting, harassment, safety, and more. It should clearly state that any unethical behaviour will not be tolerated at all levels of the organization. Of course, by opening up your hotline to accept a wide range of conduct, some managers may fear that by doing this, their hotline will be abused by frivolous reports. And it's a legitimate concern.

Ensure your whistleblower policy outlines the types of concerns acceptable to report to the hotline and which issues should not. For example, fraud, corruption, or any other unlawful activity should be brought to attention, while personal disputes between an employee and the organization may not be classified as a complaint. Keep your definitions clear so employees feel confident about using your program.

Protects Against False Allegations

As mentioned above, organizations may fear that their hotline will be abused by false allegations and frivolous reports. Strong whistleblower policies should take a firm stance against using the program with malicious intent by outlining disciplinary action that may occur. Your document should also clearly state that all raised concerns should be based on reasonable grounds.

Easy to Understand

Your policy should be easily understood and accessible. Jargon and complicated wording can deter people from voicing their concerns simply because they can’t understand the expectations and guidelines. Simple and straightforward language can help make your whistleblower policies less intimidating and more approachable, which upholds your commitment to encouraging reporting.

Empowers Individuals

When taken into holistic consideration, your whistleblower policies should aim to empower individuals. The above characteristics, for example, contribute to the empowerment of employees and relevant stakeholders. There are other ways your whistleblower policies can make people feel confident about speaking up. For instance, you should clearly outline that disclosure of complaints will be taken seriously and provide information where individuals can seek confidential advice if they’re on the fence about reporting or are worried about what might happen after coming forward.

At the highest levels of your organization, CEOs and managers must reiterate their openness and encouragement for their employees to voice their concerns. This support from the top trickles down to help everyone feel comfortable about speaking up.

How WhistleBlower Security Can Help

Whistleblower policies are one of the most vital components of an organization's speak-up culture. At WhistleBlower Security, our Global Ethics Helpline and reporting software can help you uphold your policies and encourage individuals to voice their concerns, allowing your company to continue to succeed long-term. Contact us today to learn more.

photo Amanda Nieweler
About the Author
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.