The recent announcement of SEC whistleblower awards is an important reminder on the need for companies to devote time and attention to proactive whistleblower policies and practices. Every organization adopts the vanilla-language of responding to whistleblowers and prohibiting retaliation against whistleblowers.
It takes guts for companies to move beyond these standard pronouncements and embrace proactive strategies for dealing with whistleblowers. Interestingly, recent studies continue to confirm what businesses already know – whistleblowers prefer by a large percentage to report their concerns internally, and approximately three-quarters of all whistleblowers want to report such concerns to their supervisors. Companies need to integrate that statistic into their proactive strategy.
First, companies need to dedicate significant resources and training of supervisors and managers on how to respond to whistleblower concerns. It is important to emphasize that supervisors and managers are required to listen, respond and elevate issues of concern. Such actions will be rewarded by the organization and not discouraged. If nothing else is done, companies will see immediate improvements.
Second, companies have to dedicate time and attention to creating a number of alternative avenues for whistleblowers to use in order to encourage them to report any concerns internally so that the company can respond quickly to the concerns. Companies already maintain hotlines, internet reporting mechanisms, and company-wide statements of encouragement. It is important to consider other possible avenues, including an ombudsman program, local offices in specific areas where the number of complaints may be high or other mechanisms to solicit employee communications.
Third, companies have to establish detailed protocols and deadlines for responding to a potential whistleblower’s concerns. Some companies require responses within two weeks of the employee reporting the complaint. If an intervention or investigation is required, companies need to inform the whistleblower of the next steps and set up a regular reporting system. Even if the whistleblower is anonymous, a communications system should be able to report back to anonymous whistleblowers so that they can be kept apprised of the company’s actions.
Fourth, companies need to publicize success stories resulting from whistleblower complaints. If a whistleblower reports a concern, the company investigates and ultimately fixes the problem, the whistleblower’s contribution, whether anonymous or not, should be publicized in the company as a model of success. The whistleblower should be praised, rewarded if possible and cited for his or her contribution to the company.
These are some basic steps a company can take to promote its support of whistleblowers. A guiding principle for dealing with whistleblowers should inform every aspect of a company’s program – whistleblowers want to be heard, and if the company commits itself to listening, most whistleblowers will not run to the SEC but will do the right thing and help the company to improve itself.