Majority of firms have whistleblowing policies, but lack formal training for those handling concerns, study finds

Experts say processes should be clear and transparent so investigators can feel confident dealing with complaints and employees feel safe to raise them

Credit: Mykyta Dolmatov/iStockphoto/Getty Images

More than two fifths (42 per cent) of employees responsible for managing whistleblowing complaints have either self-taught, learned their skills through experience, or have no experience at all, a report has found.

The study by whistleblowing and compliance services provider Safecall, which surveyed HR managers and directors from 222 organisations, found that for those companies that provide internal whistleblowing services, only 58 per cent of their investigators had been formally trained.

The report also discovered that while 17 per cent of respondent organisations lacked a whistleblowing policy, the majority (83 per cent) did have one in place.

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More than half (57 per cent) of HR professionals surveyed believed that their employees were actively encouraged to report wrongdoing. However, just 42.6 per cent said employees “generally feel safe” to do so and the majority (74 per cent) of HR professionals could not be certain that whistleblowers were confident in raising concerns.

Guy Guinan, employment partner at Gateley Legal, said several positives can be derived from a policy that emphasises how employees can bring matters to their employer’s attention. It should also not be “overlooked that a whistleblowing policy may help employers avoid or at least reduce the risk of employment claims”, he added.

“A policy that has been put in place to help employees raise whistleblowing concerns will increase the likelihood that the disclosure will be readily identified as one that qualifies as a protected disclosure. This will be achieved by encouraging the employee to make express reference to the policy when raising the issue,” Guinan said. 

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However, the report also found that one in five (20 per cent) organisations have whistleblowing processes that their employees would find to be “highly untrustworthy”.

Liz Sebag-Montefiore, career coach and director of HR consultancy 10Eighty, said any good leader or HR professional wants to foster an environment where employees are treated as valuable assets and given a voice so they can speak out.

However, the issue is not with the intention or the policy, but rather with a “fundamental lack of trust between an organisation and its workforce”.

“We need protection for whistleblowing so misconduct can be exposed and systems reformed. A policy has to be communicated to employees transparently and backed by a culture that values engaged employees and provides them with a workplace where integrity and good ethical practices are front and foremost,” she said.

Sarah Loates, founder of Loates HR Consultancy, said clear whistleblowing policies can support businesses in fostering a transparent and open company culture. “That said, it starts from the top; leading by example that it’s ok to speak up,” she added.

Given the significance of handling complaints for every business, Helen Farr, partner and employment lawyer at Taylor Wessing, said  it makes sense to have a whistleblowing policy that ensures there is a clear procedure that must be followed by all staff when a complaint is made.

“It should also be a clear part of that policy that staff should not be victimised or subjected to any detrimental treatment as a result of bringing a complaint to protect the business from liability, " Farr said.

Last year, legal experts warned HR professionals of the consequences of workers whistleblowing on their former and current employers for coronavirus job retention schemes, with law firm Pinsent Masons reporting that 13,775 furlough fraud whistleblowing reports were made to HMRC.

Meanwhile, a previous People Management report found that one in five (20 per cent) employees who had gone to their bosses with concerns over furlough fraud and breaches of Covid-19 safety rules were sacked as result.