Stuart Gentle Publisher at Onrec

HR teams need to be trained better to deal with whistleblowing matters

A ‘speak up’ culture may be building across businesses and organisations but there is a worrying lack of awareness and training on how to deal with whistleblowing matters.

Organisations are running the risk of reporting managers not understanding how to respond when an incident of wrongdoing is raised, and investigations not being carried out in a fair and transparent way, according to some new UK research.

In light of the new findings, HR managers and directors are being encouraged to review their whistleblowing processes to boost awareness and build greater trust among employees.

The whistleblowing survey, conducted by an independent third party, was commissioned by UK-based Safecall – a specialist whistleblowing services provider. The report and findings allow HR practitioners to benchmark their public, private and third sector organisations against their peers.

Joanna Lewis, MD at Safecall, said: “What is notable from this survey is that, while the systems to enable speaking up are improving and becoming more robust, much more can be done to ensure people are prepared when a report of wrongdoing comes in.

“It’s a positive sign that we are seeing more organisations taking whistleblowing seriously, but it’s concerning that less than half the respondents are reporting that staff are regularly trained on how to deal with whistleblowing matters and how to investigate them.”

A majority of respondents – some 88.4% - have a whistleblowing policy in place, while 11.6% do not. This is a marked improvement on the 2022 survey when 17% said they did not have a whistleblowing policy in place. While there is no legal requirement for a whistleblowing policy, under the Corporate Governance Code, if a listed company does not have one in place then senior management must be able to explain why this is the case.

There are sound business reasons to have a whistleblowing policy in place – notably, to aid management in defence of a corporate liability charge, should wrongdoing be suggested. It is actively encouraged by The Bribery Act 2010 and recommended in government guidance for all employers.

Most organisations provide a range of whistleblowing channels to report wrongdoing through, such as email, telephone, voicemail, the internet and mobile. However, more than 25% of respondents do not offer a telephone hotline to their employees.

A lack of hotline provision hinders employee accessibility to make a report. Joanna Lewis, added: “You are 50% more likely to get a report of bullying, harassment, victimisation or racism via a hotline call than via a web portal. That’s because reporters are more likely to discuss emotional issues via a hotline service. There is value in a conversation that you simply cannot get in say, a voicemail or a web report.” She added that whistleblowers feel more comfortable being named when they use a hotline, which should enable a more thorough investigation.

The report also indicated an increase in the number of organisations opting for an external whistleblowing services provider. Joanna Lewis explained: “We are seeing a noticeable shift towards using independent whistleblowing providers as more organisations are becoming aware of the value of an external service when encouraging their employees to speak up.

“It is important for employees to know they can make a report, in a method and at a time most convenient to them, about wrongdoing in the workplace to a third party that is experienced, entirely impartial and who will maintain their anonymity if requested. This will ultimately build greater trust in the whistleblowing process and encourage reports to be made.”

The report reveals that training and promotion of whistleblowing processes in the workplace appear to be areas where improvements can be made:

  • Some 53% of respondents don’t do continuous training and may feel that an induction or one-off training course is enough
  • Around 18% don’t train their staff in whistleblowing processes at all.

Safecall recommends that regular training refreshers are required. The more training that is provided, the more likely employees are to feel empowered and confident in their whistleblowing process.

94% of respondents expressed that training is absolutely necessary for workplace investigators, yet only 49% of respondents could confidently say their investigators had received formal training.

The risks for organisations conducting investigations using employees with no formal whistleblowing investigations training are severe. The greatest element of risk lies in failing to follow legislative and tribunal process, and this is a recurring reason for organisations losing tribunals.

The survey provides both good and bad news when respondents were asked to describe employee sentiment about whistleblowing. A clear majority believe their employees feel safe and confident reporting concerns of wrongdoing. However, the middle proportion of employees that only ‘generally feel safe’ in wrongdoing has risen significantly from 43% to 52%. This should be a cause for concern, says the report.

Joanna Lewis concludes: “This survey’s findings highlight a real opportunity for companies and organisations to review their whistleblowing processes, promote them better to their employees and ensure their confidential reporting hotlines and procedures are robust and independent.

“Taking the steps to build a culture of trust in your organisation will not only improve the workplace for your employees, but also attract great people who want to work for you; enable you to better understand what is going on in your organisation and, perhaps most importantly, give you the tools to help you solve any issues.”

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