Organisations need to take a proactive approach in how they manage whistleblowing incidents. Failure to do so can lead to reputational damage and significant disruption for employees and even mental health issues. Employment lawyers Nicholas Thorpe and Christina Hutchinson consider how this can be done effectively from an HR perspective
With the #metoo movement still fresh in people’s minds, it is imperative that organisations remain proactive and vigilant in the management of their workplace practices. While this is, of course, relevant to sexual harassment, it is also applicable to other workplace matters that can cause significant damage and liability for organisations, and negatively affect employees.
Whistleblowing incidents can result in costly litigation for organisations (as well as individual employees) and cause significant stress to the individuals involved. With the EU Whistleblowing Directive setting higher standards for employers across Europe, it is more important than ever that businesses prioritise the effective management of whistleblowing complaints.
Lead by example
Whistleblowing complaints often require the involvement of several different teams across an organisation, most commonly including compliance, legal and HR. It is usual for compliance teams to lead the process and deal with the investigation of the matter, with HR only becoming involved towards the end. At that stage, it is not unusual for matters for have progressed quite significantly, with the potential for some serious damage to have already occurred. For example, the whistleblower may have been subjected to some form of retaliation or detriment, or a number of grievances may have been raised by different individuals. These matters can be extremely time and labour intensive (and therefore require additional resources), are best avoided as far as possible.
While compliance teams are capable of handling the whistleblowing process, they may not have the necessary knowledge or experience to identify when an individual has been retaliated against for blowing the whistle, or when a grievance is on the horizon. By the time HR are asked to step in, the damage may have already been done and parties may be entrenched in their positions, making it extremely difficult to resolve matters without disruption and unnecessary costs to the business.
We therefore strongly encourage organisations to have people teams involved alongside compliance at the forefront of any whistleblowing complaint, identifying any HR issues as and when they arise. People teams should work with the wider business and devise a strategy for managing whistleblowing incidents, playing an active role in the process.
As with many other complex workplace matters (and as alluded to above), whistleblowing incidents require the involvement of several different areas of an organisation, including the actual complaint itself, the subject matter of that complaint, the investigation of the allegations and also any remedial action that needs to be taken as a result. With so many things to consider, it can be difficult to avoid entwining these matters, which may lead to HR matters slipping through the gaps.
Given the sensitivity around HR issues, it is important that any HR-related matters are treated separately and dealt with by the appropriate professionals within the organisation. This will also avoid the risk of grievances being raised related to how employees have been treated, and will allow organisations to effectively manage each step of the process.
Support your workforce
While the subject matter of the complaint will naturally be the focus of an organisation’s resources, whistleblowing incidents can be psychologically and emotionally stressful for all involved. This includes the whistleblower, the people accused of wrongdoing and any other relevant individuals (for example, witnesses). This stress can have a negative impact on organisations for a number of different reasons, resulting in employee absences, business disruption, poor employee mental health, negative PR and reputational damage, and a lack of employee engagement. All of these things have the potential to result in legal claims brought by employees, which can be both extremely costly and time-consuming for organisations.
As many whistleblowing procedures focus on flagging and remedying wrongdoing within an organisation, the employees involved in the process are often overlooked. Being proactive in providing psychological help and support for those involved will avoid the negative impacts set out above and ensure that the process is as straightforward as possible. Organisations can consider a variety of support including providing an independent and confidential helpline, psychological training and mental health workshops and counselling.
This support should not only be available during the complaint process, but also before it has commenced, as employees should feel comfortable raising concerns without the risk of retaliation. This will help create an open environment where employees are encouraged to raise issues, which is of course the underlying purpose a whistleblowing procedure. In addition, the support can help employees remain calm and potentially re-consider their escalation of certain matters, as well as minimise the risk of employees involved in the incident developing mental health problems, such as anxiety, depression and adjustment disorders.
Ultimately, if an employee feels supported though the whistleblowing process, there is less risk of things going wrong.
Summary of advice
Our tips for dealing with a whistleblowing incident from start to finish from an employment perspective are:
- Ensure people teams are involved from the outset.
- Identify when HR issues arise, and deal with these separately to the actual complaint/investigation.
- Actively support employees through all stages of the whistleblowing process, with a focus on psychological support for those that may be most affected.
- Make sure your house is in order – review and monitor all policies and procedures that your organisation has in relation to whistleblowing, ensuring they are up-to-date.
- Train senior managers on how to spot whistleblowing incidents and deal with them appropriately, with minimal impact on the business.