How to Support and Protect Whistleblowers on World Whistleblower Day and Beyond

Supporting whistleblowers is a year-round activity. Revamp your approach this World Whistleblower Day.

Today, June 23, marks World Whistleblower Day—an occasion to mark the importance of whistleblowers in fighting corruption and consider how to support whistleblowers in your organization.

We’ve long extolled the strategic value of a “speak up culture,” and if you work in ethics and compliance, you’re probably already aware of what a meaningful impact whistleblowers can have on your risk visibility, reputation management, and regulatory compliance. But the key component in building that culture is establishing trust in your whistleblower hotline—and actively supporting whistleblowers is the first, and most important, step in establishing that trust.

How do you support whistleblowers? Ultimately, whistleblowers feeling supported is a cultural issue that must permeate the entire organization—but it starts with the ethics and compliance team. There are a few best practices that you can start with, the most important of which is preventing retaliation.

How to support and protect whistleblowers

  1. Make whistleblowing easy
  2. Help whistleblowers overcome fear of the unknown
  3. Provide whistleblower recognition
  4. Prevent whistleblower retaliation
  5. Follow up with whistleblowers
  6. Measure speak-up rates and retaliation across the organization

Keep reading for more details on how to approach each of these best practices.

Make whistleblowing easy

The choice to blow the whistle is potentially the most challenging moment in a person’s entire career. It’s hard enough to gather the courage to submit a report—but if you make the whistleblowing process as straightforward as possible, you can remove the anxiety and frustration that may prevent whistleblowers from finishing what they started.

1. Provide multiple intake channels

Not every employee has access to a computer during their workday. On the other hand, not every whistleblower will feel comfortable submitting a report to their boss, while some whistleblowers prefer to submit a report to a familiar face. By allowing whistleblowers to submit reports online, over the phone to an agent, or in person to their manager—or even via text—you lower the barrier to entry and ease the first step in what can appear to be an arduous process.

2. Provide anonymity options

How to support and protect whistleblowers

Enabling anonymous reports is a key requirement in some countries. Regardless of whether your local regulatory body requires anonymity, providing the option to report anonymously is a best practice.

3. Let whistleblower dictate their follow-up communication

While some whistleblowers may wish to submit a report and move on with their lives, others may want to know what happens next. If they never hear back, they may wonder whether they went to all that effort for nothing. Allowing the whistleblower to opt-in to follow-up communications—whether they’ve remained anonymous or not—puts the choice in their hands.

Help whistleblowers overcome fear of the unknown

The unknown can be scary. Most whistleblowers are submitting a report for the first time and may have no idea what to expect—unless you’ve proactively educated your workforce.

1. Run awareness campaigns where whistleblowers are lauded

Perhaps the most frightening aspect of submitting a whistleblower report can be the sense that the whistleblower is “going up against the company” without knowing what happens next. Pre-empt that fear by sharing anonymized stories of substantiated reports—how and why the report was submitted, what the investigation process was like, and how grateful the company is to the whistleblower for helping them spot an issue before it got any worse.

2. Help potential whistleblowers “practice” submitting reports with a competition

Some Convercent Helpline customers have had success launching their helplines with a competition that invites employees to submit a simple report; everyone who participates and submits their report is entered in a drawing for a prize. They gain familiarity with the reporting process, step-by-step, and can spread the word about their experience.

Provide whistleblower recognition—on a personal level and on an anonymized, “public” level

When you take the time to recognize whistleblowers, you show them that they’re supported and appreciated. This can take several different forms:

1. Monetary compensation

The United States federal government provides monetary rewards to whistleblowers through a variety of different programs, but some companies attempt to pre-empt external whistleblowing by rewarding their own whistleblowers internally. These can be small monetary bonuses or large rewards.

2. A personal note

Money isn’t the only way to show appreciation and recognize value. As pointed out by Dr. Pat Harned, CEO of the Ethics and Compliance Initiative, during our last Global Forum on Whistleblowing and Retaliation, a personal note from a senior-level leader (like the CEO) thanking the whistleblower for their courage in helping the company solve a problem can go a long way toward expressing the company’s gratitude.

3. Share real-life whistleblowing stories across the organization

When you share stories of substantiated reports with the entire workforce, you demonstrate the importance of whistleblowing and the way you value whistleblowers to potential future whistleblowers. This ensures that should the occasion arise when they feel compelled to submit a report, they know that the process is fair, and they’ll be supported.

Prevent whistleblower retaliation

As Convercent CECO Asha Palmer said at our Global Forum on Whistleblowing and Retaliation, “You can’t build trust in a whistleblowing platform without solving for the retaliation problem.”

Unfortunately, retaliation is at an all-time high, according to ECI’s most recent Global Business Ethics Survey. “Globally, we found that 61 percent of employees who observed some sort of wrongdoing and reported it internally experienced retaliation for having done so…79 percent of employees [in the U.S.] who saw wrongdoing and reported it experienced retaliation for having done so,” Dr. Harned said. “That’s a 44 percent increase over the last time we studied it.”

That means that anti-retaliation measures are now more important than ever. It may seem impossible to track retaliation when so much of it takes place offline, let alone prevent it from happening—but it is possible, and it’s essential that compliance teams undertake the effort.

1. Have an anti-retaliation policy and run awareness campaigns for it

An anti-retaliation policy is the bare minimum. Ensure that your stance on retaliation is encoded in official company policy, and accessible to all employees on your company intranet or ethics portal. Then, make sure that everyone knows about it. You may already run awareness campaigns for your hotline. Supplement those campaigns with specific messaging on your anti-retaliation policy so that everyone—from senior leadership to the most junior employee—knows what’s expected of them.

2. Proactive training on trauma-informed investigations

When a whistleblower submits their report directly to a manager, perception of retaliation can begin at that very moment depending on how the report is received. And that perception can continue to be strengthened during the investigation. That’s why it’s essential that managers and investigators are trained to recognize whistleblowing as a potentially traumatic event and handle their response accordingly.

Follow up with whistleblowers

Convercent’s Chief Compliance Advisor in Europe, Keith Read, has a powerful story of retaliation and how it formed his entire strategy for following up with whistleblowers. “One case changed my whole approach to retaliation and made me realize how truly dreadful and pervasive it can be,” Read said. “In that case, a director retaliated against a manager, in what started out as a simple professional disagreement. The retaliation resulted in the manager having a serious heart attack and his teenage son—in the belief that he would be forced to change school if his father couldn’t work—tried to commit suicide.” Read continues:

I realized that our entire approach to anti-retaliation was passive and reactive; we had a half-page policy, and we would investigate retaliation cases that we became aware of. But we needed to do more and make it proactive.

I decided to first take 50 or so non-anonymous whistleblower reports and consider those against what I thought could be simple ‘markers’ of retaliation: pay, bonus, promotion, overtime and shift allocation. It became obvious within minutes that we had retaliation; not everywhere, and not affecting every whistleblower, but it was there. Moreover, some teams and locations had a noticeably greater propensity for retaliation, as did a few managers and senior managers, a couple of whom appeared to take a ‘retaliation culture’ with them as they moved around the company.

That data formed the basis for our first Retaliation Risk Analysis (RRA), and also gave us—for the first time— proper data to support our whistleblower follow-up. Some companies do follow-up with whistleblowers, but given the potentially extended timing of retaliation, it’s clearly not ‘once-and-done’ and needs to continue for much longer than is often envisaged. Crucially, many follow-ups are often ‘fobbed-off’ by whistleblowers who say they haven’t had a problem whereas, in reality, they have, and just want it all to go away. Having the data means that the right questions can be asked, and my experience is that there can be a 4 or 5 to 1 multiplier; the data may indicate one retaliation event, such as pay, but faced with the data, the whistleblower will actually then highlight several other incidents, such as exclusion from the team, personal property theft and even ‘gaslighting.’

So, how do you begin to proactively follow up with whistleblowers? Start by identifying your own markers, whether it’s pay raises, bonuses, relocations, or performance review scores. Ideally, some markers can be measured using HR data; others will require a high-touch approach and may not be possible with anonymous whistleblowers. Implement a check-in timeline; for example, check in within a month, three months, six months, and a year. Establish a “normal range” for each marker and make note of any markers that fall outside the range. Is there a business justification for the exception?

Crucially in Europe, tracking such markers will enable you to comply with the EU Whistleblower Protection Directive. The Directive requires a reverse burden of proof—companies must prove that no retaliation has taken place because of a report, rather than the whistleblower proving that retaliation has taken place. For more on the requirements that European companies will face starting this December, download Keith Read’s Guide to the Directive.

Measure speak-up rates and retaliation across the organization

Finally, track whether your whistleblower support is having an impact. Measure your reporting rates, substantiation rates, and instances of retaliation moving forward. You can benchmark your own results using a benchmarking tool like Convercent’s, or compare your results to the numbers in ECI’s Global Business Ethics Survey.

Watch our World Whistleblower Day panel on supporting and protecting whistleblowers

This World Whistleblower Day, we went live with Wendy Addison, former whistleblower and founder of SpeakUp SpeakOut Ltd, Tomell Ceaser, Head of Ethics & Compliance at Careem Group, and Asha Palmer, Chief Ethics and Compliance Officer here at Convercent. Click here to watch their conversation on the neuroscience behind retaliation, successful methods for encouraging speak-up culture, and how the EU Whistleblower Protection Directive is changing the global whistleblowing landscape.