The news is rife these days with stories of whistleblowers: individuals who exposed corporate—and government—wrongdoing while risking their livelihoods and safety in the process.
Whistleblowers helped recover fraudulent charges totaling US$2.8 billion in 2018 alone, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. It’s never been more critical for companies to have a transparent whistleblower policy to avoid scandals that have plagued companies such as Boeing and Volkswagen—and it’s up to communication teams to lead the charge.
“Whistleblowers should be seen as the early warning system for misconduct,” says John Kostyack, executive director of the National Whistleblower Center, a Washington, D.C.-based legal advocacy group that aids and advocates for whistleblowers. “If you want to address misconduct before it turns into a full-blown scandal with legal issues and government action, send a signal that whistleblowers are welcome.”
It’s critical to make your company’s communication environment transparent so employees feel safe to share their complaints, experts say. Here are four tips on how to create a whistleblower-friendly organization.
1. Break through the legalese
While many large companies do have internal whistleblower policies, they are often written in legal language and not widely shared with employees.
Enter communication staff. They can decode the jargon and make it clear that the company wants employees to come forward with complaints, Kostyack says. “Whatever policies the company develops should be well known and well disseminated,” he says.
2. Get the conversation going
Don’t wait for an employee to blow the whistle to take action, says Wendy Addison, a former whistleblower in the case of Leisurenet (known as “South Africa’s Enron”). The founder and CEO of international consultancy SpeakOut SpeakUp Ltd., Addison says, “The act of whistleblowing arouses psychological conflict, going against our innate values of loyalty and need to belong.”
Organizations can find better ways to encourage and train their employees to speak up, Addison says. She trains companies to hold informal chats to air any concerns—what she dubs “courageous conversations.”
“If you want to address misconduct before it turns into a full-blown scandal with legal issues and government action, send a signal that whistleblowers are welcome.” —John Kostyack, executive director of the National Whistleblower Center
Training on the company’s whistleblower policy should be incorporated into larger corporate trainings, Kostyack says. If employees come forward with problems at an early stage, a company can hopefully avoid a full-blown scandal later on.
3. Offer a secure communication channel for whistleblowers
Of course, the biggest challenge in getting employees to air their complaints is assuring them that their superiors won’t retaliate. The environment might be getting better in the European Union where new laws protect whistleblowers from facing retaliation in all of its 28 countries. But generally, whistleblower legislation worldwide is ambiguous, Addison says.
Some companies may offer a whistleblower hotline, while others might let employees share information electronically. Whatever the case, make sure that the communication channel is anonymous and secure. One way to do that is to get a third party, such as a law firm that reports to the board of directors, to handle to the complaints. This approach assures potential whistleblowers that their complaints are not being handled by the very people accused of misconduct, Kostyack says.
4. Facilitate dialogue between HR and legal
Communication pros can help ensure the human resources and legal departments are on the same page. If an HR manager fires a whistleblower and doesn’t know that the same employee has made a protected whistleblowing disclosure, the fired employee might sue for compensation, arguing that speaking out led to their dismissal, Addison says.
Even if they don’t sue, disgruntled employees can take their grievances to social media and online company ratings sites, which could prevent other talented prospects from applying, Addison says. By facilitating regular communication among these departments, you can help avoid these negative outcomes.
Communication pros are in the ideal position to take a leadership role on whistleblower protections. Don’t wait for a scandal to break—take action today.