Redirecting the Conversation from Whistleblowing to Speaking Up

August 26, 2020
LRN Corporation

Whistleblowing has enjoyed a long history of protection in the United States, with the first whistleblowing legislation taking place on July 30, 1778 – just seven months after the Declaration of Independence was signed. But over that time, the term “whistleblower” has experienced a swing in public perception, causing both positive and negative reactions from society and businesses.

Today, despite high-profile whistleblower cases over the past decade that rocked the government, the financial services industry, and global healthcare, 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 and often insulting whistleblower label.

Instead of speaking of disclosures in corruption, harassment, or 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

We at Interactive Services support the speak-up culture movement, viewing it as essential to running an ethical business, and effectively promoting employee awareness and courage. Where whistleblowing often refers to the social and legal issues that arise when an organization is thrust into the public eye for poor handling of compliance issues, we see speaking up as the antidote for potentially harmful business practices.

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 a much better headline than a list of allegations that follow a breaking story.

Whether it’s whistleblowing or speaking up, both actions require unprecedented courage from the employee that brings issues to a company’s attention. But by reframing these conversations as speaking up, it turns the negative aspect of whistleblowing on its head, helping employees feel less like they are ratting out their colleagues, and more like they are upholding the ethical standards the company has set forth.

Yet, speaking up is only possible if an organization – and more specifically, its culture – creates an environment where these courageous conversations can take place.

How Organizations can 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 ticking the regulatory boxes during training, employees are only educated on the mechanics of reporting compliance issues, such as how, when, and where issues should be reported. But this sort of training 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, not being authentic could turn employees against the business, instead of inspiring them to live by company values and ethical standards.

To truly change behavior and encourage courageous conversations, compliance teams must humanize the training process, focusing less on the technicalities of reporting, and placing more effort 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.

In addition to building a training program that helps build employee confidence, compliance teams must work closely with HR and other company leadership to make speaking up a positive experience. This can be achieved in the following ways:

Give and Receive Feedback Regularly

Speaking and listening go together, so it’s important for leadership to engage employees frequently outside the bounds of whistleblowing topics. When employees feel their input is valued, and they have more opportunities to participate in company decisions, connections with leadership will be strengthened, and employees will feel more comfortable stepping up and speaking out.

Bring Support Forward

If reporting vehicles haven’t been updated in some time, or policies on speaking up can only be found inside employee manuals, they could get forgotten or ignored. Making information on speaking up more visible, in the form of company posters, emails, and newsletters, can go a long way in not only reminding employees that support is available, but also that leadership is encouraging them to use these outlets. names of people they can turn to in leadership when a violation occurs.

Reward ethical actions

Rewarding employees for “doing the right thing” at work can go a long way in promoting a speak-up culture. While it may seem counterintuitive to incentivize ethical behavior, giving rewards sends a strong signal about the importance of ethics and compliance in the business. After all, incentives are handed out regularly for performance and productivity, so it only makes sense to reward employees who have the courage to speak up instead of looking out for their own self-interest.

Handle Issues Immediately

To create a speak-up culture, you must build employee trust. When an issue is reported, be sure to commend the employee for their courage, and then follow up by investigating their claim thoroughly. While it isn’t possible to disclose the full details of an internal investigation, it’s important for a business to keep employees informed throughout the process. This can help assure employees the company takes their claim seriously and that they will have their back every step of the way.

Instill Employee Confidence

In addition to handling issues in a timely and transparent fashion, it’s important for businesses to reassure employees that they are protected from retaliation whenever a red flag is raised. After all, federal whistleblower protections exist for good reason, and company policies and training should reflect them. Doing so, employees will know that if they decide to speak up, they won’t have to worry about any repercussions for doing the right thing.

Interactive Services is a leader in helping organizations create effective speak-up cultures through our award-winning training solutions and custom learning programs. Discover how we can help your employees get the courage and confidence to speak up by trying out our free 7-day trial!

About the Author

LRN Corporation

Ethics and compliance leader providing tools, education, and advisory services for global companies to inspire principled performance.

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