Redirecting the conversation from whistleblowing to speaking up

*This blog post was updated on September 27, 2021 to incorporate new data and company services. 

Over the years, whistleblowing has played a vital role in exposing corruption, fraud, and mismanagement. In the United States, the first whistleblowing legislation took place on July 30, 1778—just seven months after the Declaration of Independence was signed. In 2019, the European Union introduced the EU Whistleblower Directive, which sets minimum standards for the protection of whistleblowers and requires all EU countries to transpose the law by December 2021. But despite its history of protection, the term “whistleblower” has experienced a swing in public perception, causing both positive and negative reactions from society and businesses. 

Amid the high-profile whistleblower cases that have rocked governmentsfinancial services institutions, and global healthcare in just the past decade, the perception of whistleblowing has been mostly negative. And it’s the main reason why many companies are changing how they refer to it. 

With whistleblowing taking on such a negative meaning in business and government circles, many companies have stepped up to remove—or in some cases, simply reinvent—the intimidating “whistleblower” label. Instead of speaking of disclosures in corruption, harassment, and cybersecurity as mere whistleblowing, organizations are now framing it as “speaking up” at work, encouraging employees to be more proactive and vocal in bringing ethical issues to the company’s attention, and establishing a framework that makes it easier to do so. 

Why we promote speaking up vs. whistleblowing 

The term “whistleblowing” is often used in mainstream conversations to describe the social and legal issues that arise when an organization is thrust into the public eye, usually for poor handling of compliance initiatives. In contrast, “speaking up” is the antidote for potentially harmful business practices—and is essential to running an ethical business. Encouraging employees to speak up instills more confidence in staff and promotes awareness of ethics and compliance issues more effectively. 

As allegations of whistleblowing come under the control of reporters and PR teams, speaking up is what happens before whistleblowing comes into public view. And unlike whistleblowing, the effects of having a business where employees feel empowered to tell their story makes for a better headline than a list of allegations that follow a breaking story. 

Despite their differences, whistleblowing or speaking up both require unprecedented courage from the employee that brings issues to a company’s attention. Reframing these conversations as speaking up turns the negative aspects of whistleblowing on its head; employees feel less like they are ratting out their colleagues, and more like they are upholding the ethical standards the company has set forth. But speaking up is only possible if an organization creates a culture where these courageous conversations can take place. 

How organizations can use ethics and compliance training to help employees speak up 

Creating a workplace culture that encourages speaking up is the best-case scenario for compliance teams. Getting there, however, requires a hard look at the training programs and company processes that impact employee behavior. When an organization puts too much emphasis on “checking the box” during training, staff members are only educated on the mechanics of reporting compliance issues—such as how, when, and where issues should be reported. This training style can make company efforts seem insincere, as they don’t take into account the great difficulty of coming forward if or when a situation arises. And as one expert suggests, being inauthentic could turn employees against the business rather than inspire them to live by company values and ethical standards. 

To truly change behavior and encourage people to use their voice, ethics and compliance teams must humanize the training process—focusing less on the technicalities of reporting and placing more emphasis on education that supports open dialogue. One of the most effective ways to do this is by helping employees put policies into practice through real-world training scenarios, where they can see the impact of non-compliance first-hand, address the mental and emotional aspects of speaking up, and learn effective ways to address these issues with management. 

5 actions to take that help create a speak-up culture at work 

In addition to building a training program that helps build employee confidence, ethics and compliance teams must work closely with HR and other company leadership to make speaking up a positive experience. Here are five actions you can take to achieve this. 

  1. Seek out feedback regularly. Speaking and listening go together. That’s why it’s important for leadership to engage employees for feedback outside the bounds of whistleblowing topics. When people have more opportunities to participate in company decisions, it’s more likely that they will feel their input is valued and, in turn, feel more comfortable approaching leadership and speaking up. 
  2. Make support accessible. If reporting mechanisms aren’t updated and policies can only be found inside dense compliance manuals, they will often be forgotten or ignored. Making information on speaking up more visible—using company intranet, posters, emails, newsletters, etc.—can go a long way in reminding employees that support is available and leadership is encouraging them to use these outlets. It's also an opportunity to highlight the names of people in leadership that they can turn to when a violation occurs. 
  3. Reward ethical actions. Recognizing when team members do the right thing can go a long way in promoting a speak-up culture at work. Rewarding ethical decisions and actions can help send a strong signal about the importance of ethics and compliance in the business. If incentives are handed out for performance and productivity, it only makes sense to reward employees who have the courage to speak up when an ethical challenge arises. 
  4. Handle issues immediately. Creating a speak-up culture requires building trust throughout your organization. When an issue is reported, be sure to commend the person for their courage and follow up by investigating their claim thoroughly. And while it isn’t possible to disclose the full details of an internal investigation, it’s important to keep employees informed throughout the process. It demonstrates that the company takes their claim seriously.
  5. Instill employee confidence. In addition to handling issues in a timely and transparent manner, businesses must also clearly communicate that employees are protected from retaliation whenever a red flag is raised. After all, whistleblower protections exist in many different countries for good reason. When company policies and training reflect those protections, employees will feel more confident that they speak up without worrying about any repercussions for doing the right thing. 

The key takeaway 

It’s not always easy for employees to report a concern when something doesn’t seem right or when they suspect a colleague may be violating a law—but it is the right thing to do. To learn more about how you can give your employees the confidence to speak up, check out the below resources and get in touch with us for a discovery call.