An illustration of a sign with the text whistleblowing for all

Why employers should promote whistleblowing

Promoting the practice of whistleblowing may sound counterintuitive, but research on the subject shows there are clear benefits. Beyond avoiding fines employers should consider the following reasons to promote whistleblowing in their organisation:

  • Evolving demands
  • Reconceptualizing whistleblowing
  • Company culture

Evolving demands

At least in the European Union (EU), employing a whistleblower system is no longer an option for companies with over 50 employees. In other words, organisations now have to promote whistleblowing whether they like it or not. The EU Whistleblowing Directive from 2019 sets out a minimum standard for whistleblowing systems and companies must adapt to this new reality.

This process is complicated by the fact that many aspects of the Directive are subject to local legislation. This could for example mean that certain member states accept anonymous reports as legitimate, while others do not. What is more, the European Commission plans to introduce another directive aimed at human rights due diligence which could include corporate grievance mechanisms. Thus, the pressure on businesses to comply with rapidly evolving regulation is mounting.

Reconceptualizing whistleblowing

Considering this state of affairs, organisations do not have much of a choice but to get on board with whistleblowing and fast. In order to make this work for employers, a conceptual shift seems necessary. It is common to analyse crises in terms of lack, i.e. the questions asked after an incident imply that bad outcomes are avoidable, if only the right procedures can be put in place ahead of time. This situates the practice of whistleblowing as a consequence of an already broken communication process.

A different way of conceptualising the problem, suggested by Rothel Smith III et al. (2021) posits whistleblowing as a protest against current organisational norms in an environment which has evolved over time to stifle self-criticism. Thus, speaking up can be understood as an appeal for a different way to conduct the organisation. Viewing whistleblowing in this way can help organisations move forward rather than getting stuck in their own muck.

Company culture

This brings us to the final point of organisational culture. The environment employees find themselves in affects the outcome of instances of misconduct. Research by Cleary & Duke (2019) points out that environments where there is a high focus on the power and influence of individuals tend to foster biases like wilful blindness. This is when individuals ignore legitimate complaints. This results in an inability to reliably judge and take action in response to tips from employees, even where there is ample evidence in support of the claim.

Thus, the culture of the organisation needs to shift if it is to benefit from the impact of whistleblowing reports. After all, a positive work culture trickles down into employee performance and retention, talent acquisition, and even profitability.

New and forthcoming legislation puts pressure on businesses to implement whistleblowing systems, however their success depends on more than simple implementation. A shift in how whistleblowing is understood can aid in this regard, allowing organisations to harness the benefits of early risk management. Company culture is a determining factor for successful whistleblowing systems, and organisations can reap the reward. However, cultural shifts do not just happen overnight - they require time, effort, and open dialogues.

Further reading:

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

Rothel Smith III W, Treem J W & Barbour, J B (2021) ‘Chapter 15: Whistleblowing as a Means of (Re)Constituting an Organization.’ pp. 214-228 in: Ed. Svenkerud P J, Sørnes J O & Browning L (2021) Whistleblowing, Communication And Consequences: Lessons from the Norwegian National Lottery. Routlege: New York and London. ISBN: 978-0-367-82203-3

Saloranta, J (2021) ‘The EU Whistleblowing Directive: An Opportunity for (Operationalizing) Corporate Human Rights Grievance Mechanisms?’ European Business Organization Law Review. [Online] 22(4), 753–780.