An illustration of two persons who is looking at a whistle

Advice for employers on how to manage whistleblowing reports

Nearly one in three European organisations are not able to agree that their company culture promotes compliance with the 2019 EU Directive on whistleblowing, according to a recent survey by NAVEX Global. There are several barriers to effective whistleblowing mechanisms, including how intimidating it can be for people to come forward in the first place. This article gives an overview of three important aspects that employers can consider when managing reports:

  • Taking action;
  • Moral courage;
  • Robust whistleblowing system.

Taking action

It may not seem like much of an advice, but taking action is one of the first steps employers can take toward successfully managing whistleblower reports. The NAVEX survey found that middle managers often tend to sit on complaints, in some cases even concealing them from higher-ups. A study by Cleary and Duke (2019) calls this wilful blindness - the desire to avoid complications that have potentially negative effects on the funding or public image of the organisation. Those in charge of assessing the complaints then engage in motivated reasoning, demanding more evidence even where it is already provided. This leads to inaction which can in turn exacerbate the situation. Thus, the issue is not that problems need to be identified, but that something must be done about them.

Moral courage

In order to counteract this effect, employers can also promote exercising moral courage, in the form of personal awareness about competing emotions and interests where ethical dilemmas are concerned. Cleary and Duke (2019) recommend leaders be primed to seek disconfirmation of their beliefs to circumvent biases and to be proactive in seeking the core of the matter. This can be difficult in organisations with few employees, as there is a high likelihood of the responsible individual already having a personal relationship to both whistleblowers and those implicated of wrongdoing. This is also one reason why offering the option of submitting anonymous complaints is so important. Features such as Walor’s screening tool can be helpful in this respect, since it offers a third-party assessment of the seriousness of each report before forwarding it to the relevant contact person. If the person is implicated in the complaint, it will be forwarded to the next person in the line of contact.

Robust whistleblowing system

This recommendation can also seem self-explanatory, but research suggests certain determinants of success. Khan et al. (2022) found that observers of misconduct prefer to report wrongdoings to people with an impartial profile, probably due at least in part to the above mentioned issues. This is where a screening service can be of help, and why the line of contact (who the complaint will be forwarded to) is crucial. The study thus concluded that accessible reporting methods and clearly defined lines of authority are essential for a successful whistleblowing system. Training on relevant legislation can also aid employees in identifying wrongdoings early on. This is why Walor is committed to provide a solution where people have access to the information they need before submitting a report.

To sum up, effective management of whistleblowing reports depends on taking action regarding the complaint. It also depends on exercising moral courage to discern how one’s pre-held beliefs can impact the situation. Implementing a robust whistleblowing system is thus characterised by accessible reporting methods, clearly defined lines of authority and well-informed employees.

Further reading:

Cleary S, Duke M (2019) ‘Clinical Governance Breakdown: Australian Cases of Wilful Blindness and Whistleblowing.’ Nursing Ethics. 26(4), 1039–1049.

Khan J, Saeed I, Zada M, Ali A, Contreras-Barraza N, Salazar-Sepúlveda G, Vega-Muñoz A  (2022) ‘Examining Whistleblowing Intention: The Influence of Rationalization on Wrongdoing and Threat of Retaliation.’ International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. 19(3), 1752–.

NAVEX Global (2022) Whistleblowing in Europe, NAVEXGlobal report.