Uber. Enron. Eli Lilly. I could go on and on in listing companies who have nearly or actually fallen to their death thanks to the lack of active employee dialogue on the part of leadership.
More specifically, these companies are facing or have faced turmoil from whistleblowing. A whistleblower is someone who steps up to report illicit activity, safety issues or situations going on within an organization. In simple terms, they are very brave people who take an often very public stand about a grievous situation.
As a leader, my issue with whistleblowing is that it should never escalate to this point. Employers must offer numerous stops along the way to this “final destination.” They should solicit employee complaints about illicit activities, processes, or situations. When a situation escalates to whistleblowing, it signals that an organization wasn’t engaged in a mutual dialogue with their employees prior. Either the employees were not asked for their insight into daily operations or their voices were not heard.
Despite this, businesses need to provide adequate measures for employees to blow the whistle on any and all misconduct. In fact, some are required to have one. Having policies and procedures in place reflects the company’s maturity.
The evolution of whistleblowing
Whistleblowing has been a hot topic for some time. A major step forward came in 2011 when the Security and Exchange Commission rolled out a program to reward whistleblowers who come forward. In 2016, the government paid out $22 million to a Monsanto employee who came forward about the company misstating earnings for one of its top products.
Despite the growing support of whistleblowing, the threat and fear of retaliation within an organization is a very real concern for many would-be whistleblowers. According to the MSRP, 30 percent feel their lives would become more difficult if they reported inappropriate practices.
How to put a plan in place
If we look to Susan Fowler’s story from Uber, she had a documented paper trail of feedback she was trying to provide to leadership. When leadership refused to listen, she resorted to her own personal blog to set the record straight.
To avoid a similar scandal, providing a path for your employees to come forward is crucial. It’s the responsible thing to do for your organization, your customers, your stakeholders and, most importantly, your employees. To do so correctly, here are a few measures to keep in mind:
- It starts before the last resort: Like I mentioned, a path for whistleblowing should be the last stop, not the only forum available. Any organization needs to make it a priority up front to offer outlets for hearing feedback of all sorts, from the lauding of hard working coworkers to reporting internal behavior and operations that are an ethical or moral violation. Equally as important is taking measures to communicate back to employees that their feedback is being heard and processed.
- Make the standard clear to employees: Putting effective programs in place is merely half the work. Communicating their existence, use cases and legitimacy is the other half. As we know, employees feel very nervous about coming forward to call out unethical behavior, and many fear internal retaliation in doing so. Proving to employees that not only do programs for these needs exist but that it also will work and protect them, rather than punish them, is essential. Otherwise, no one will trust the process enough to use it as an avenue.
- Appoint an ombudsman: For a whistleblower program to be taken seriously, a face needs to be put to the campaign. If associated with one leader championing employee feedback as a tool for keeping an ethical workplace, it comes across as more genuine to more employees. This means it’s more likely to be utilized when it’s needed, rather than employees working around it and going about their own means to call out misconduct. Since corruption exists at all levels, it’s helpful to have a position that transcends these as well, one that’s integrated into, yet independent, from the organization’s day-to-day existence.
Though I hope it won’t be utilized in your organization, putting a plan in place is a measure all our employees deserve. Further, putting whistleblowing mechanisms in place engender trust and make it clear that employers care about justice and fairness above all else.