6 whistleblowing policy tips: how to communicate & encourage compliance

It’s not enough to implement a whistleblowing policy; company leadership must also effectively communicate it and encourage a compliance culture among employees. Researchers Henriksen and Dayton define organisational silence as the collective phenomenon of saying or doing nothing in response to problems an organisation face. This is concerning and leaders and managers must place more value on understanding why employees stay silent. Employees and organisations are interdependent and receiving complaints is a sign of organisational health. When organisations create a climate of distrust, this can produce potentially harmful consequences for businesses.

How companies stifle compliance culture

A whistleblowing policy that doesn’t inspire employees to develop a compliance culture and report wrongdoings can create a climate where employees avoid sharing concerns with leadership. Businesses and organisations often use narrow sets of compliance policies to manage operations. Researchers Ann Tenbrunsel and David Messick say that a weak compliance program can result in less cooperation by staff. This is worse than having no system at all. External and internal sanctions for non-compliance can positively affect the decision to report misconduct. It can motivate employees not for ethical reasons but because of potentially negative effects on the business.

The relationship between non-compliance penalties and employee cooperation and willingness to disclose is influenced by internal processes. Broader parameters for compliance and a whistleblowing policy can expand managers’ access to control tools. This can prevent wrongdoing while encouraging internal whistleblowing and disclosure by employees. Yet, rewards such as promotions and pay raises are sometimes perceived as more important than preserving the business. As behavioural scientist Nuala Walsh argues, codes of conduct, audits, and training are ineffective when no one is willing to speak out. In November 2018, Marriot International experienced a cyber-attack which affected 339 million records. An investigation by the UK’s Information Commissioner’s Office . revealed the company had not taken appropriate measures to safely store the data. The Marriot was fined more than 112 million euros. Despite obvious failings in data management compliance, no one had spoken out about the gaps in security.

How to communicate a whistleblowing policy

1. Leaders set the tone

Helping employees make the decision to disclose means building a compliance culture. This means having leadership acknowledge that people may be afraid of making a mistake or unsure about the possible outcome of their disclosure. There is a lot of uncertainty involved with disclosing wrongdoing. Simply having a whistleblowing policy isn’t going to make people feel safer to do so. Your company board and senior leaders are responsible for compliance oversight and are key to setting the tone when it comes to your whistleblowing policy. They determine the organisation’s strategy, best practices, and corporate values. When leaders model the right behaviours, employees understand the values and priorities of a company.

2. Do more than the basic requirement

On their own, compliance tools, codes of conduct and audits are not enough to get employees to report wrongdoing. As Walsh states, “in motivating employees to speak up, most organizations still rely on traditional compliance-based tools […]. This approach has simply failed – only an estimated 1.4% of employees blow the whistle.” Companies must integrate compliance into the values system of the organization. They should also work closely with HR Managers to address issues as they come up. Engaging employees at every level is essential to creating a compliance culture and getting buy-in when it comes to your whistleblowing policy.

3. Use the right tools for disclosure

Digital technology can help your business connect more effectively with employees. The right whistleblowing tool can be a valuable asset to your compliance team and make tasks related to reporting and investigating wrongdoings easier. It can also help you keep relevant information about your whistleblowing policy and reporting channel more accessible. Tools like Northwhistle provide an anonymous channel for reporting wrongdoings. They make it more likely your employees will disclose these issues as they arise.

4. Have a communication strategy for whistleblowing

An important step to implementing a whistleblowing policy is to frame messaging around the disclosure of misconduct in a positive way. When wrongdoings are presented as ‘everyone’s problem’, speaking up becomes a shared goal and a collective choice, says Walsh. This reinforces the idea that employees are in it together when it comes to the company’s whistleblowing policy and other compliance issues. Making it clear what people stand to lose if they don’t disclose should be part of any communication you share with employees. For example, a Harvard University study found that senior managers who seek out new employment after they leave a company involved in a scandal are likely to be paid 4% less by their new employer.

5. Leverage company influencers

Another communication strategy for is to leverage company leaders and influencers that will make it more likely for employees to see speaking up as acceptable. A compliance culture that works requires leadership to set the tone. It also means employees who are seen as mentors and important voices, or are championing issues around compliance and ethics should be given the opportunity to speak up. Sharing motivating stories of success can reduce employees’ fear of being labelled as snitches or disloyal. Greta Thunberg began protesting her government’s inaction towards climate change alone outside the Swedish parliament in 2018 at the age of 15. Over time, she inspired over a million students to protest around the world. Using persuasion in your messages can work like advertising. The more employees hear about a message, the more it becomes part of the culture.

6. Trust your employees

While it’s important to have strong messaging around whistleblowing, you should avoid creating an atmosphere where employees feel over-policed. Having a compliance culture means choosing leaders who can step in when needed and pull back when issues can be resolved by employees. While it can be challenging to find the right balance, an important step is to have managers ask the right questions rather than always suggest the answers. This can make employees feel empowered to speak up and feel heard. To learn more about why employees don’t speak up, discover what the benefits of having a ‘speak up culture are.

Designing communications that encourage employees to speak up and see a whistleblowing policy as positive is key to creating an effective compliance culture. This calls for company leaders to make people feel safe by sharing stories and messages that motivate and set the tone for speaking up when misconduct is observed.