Working ethically: The importance of transparency and workplace whistleblowingReading Time: 5 minutes
When we hear talk of whistle-blowers, we tend to think of high-profile examples like Edward Snowden holed up in Russia or former U.S. Army soldier Chelsea Manning.
But for the most part, workplace whistleblowing doesn’t involve grand government conspiracies or James Bond-esque plotlines but generally more mundane forms of fraud and other abuses of power.
While it’s a serious course of action that presumes significant fault on the part of individuals or organisations, whistleblowing can sometimes play a major role in workplace transparency. Yet it often gets a negative rep with long-standing attitudes about “snitching”, “being a grass” or “playing for the team” weighing heavy on the minds of potential whistleblowers.
However, in almost all cases we’ve ever seen, whistleblowing has been the ethical and morally right thing to do. It’s an important tool for helping keep people in power and authority honest. We need more of a focus on workplace transparency and our people feeling able (and even obligated) to raise their voice when needed.
The importance of workplace ethics
Obviously workplace ethics are important from a purely legal standpoint. But employees also tend to be more engaged at work when they feel their employers are on the level.
A study of railway transport employees found that ‘workplace ethics culture had a significantly positive effect on work engagement.’ You need trust and transparency in the workplace because its absence can really damage workplace culture.
The Institute of Business Ethics has, as their name would perhaps suggest, been conducting on-going research into the state of ethics in the workplace. Their Embedding Business Ethics: 2020 report has found that workplaces have shifted to be more ethics-focused.
The most common reason given for codes of ethics by survey respondents was for creating a shared and consistent corporate culture at 74%. Employee guidance was second at just under 70%. Three-quarters of FTSE 100 businesses have publicly available codes of ethics and even more mention ethics in their annual reports.
According to the IBE, this is the result of businesses having to adapt to increasingly complex ethical pressures. Their 2020 report found that data privacy is now the most concerning ethical issue for businesses, compared to bribery and corruption in 2016. Almost a third of Ethics and Compliance practitioners are now reporting directly to the CEO, compared to one fifth in 2016.
However, they also report that engaging with senior leaders continues to be an ‘on-going challenge.’
Less than half of respondents reported that their company’s board received mandatory ethics training. Like other aspects of engagement, good workplace ethics need to flow from the top down with clear communication to ensure transparency. Sometimes, workplace whistleblowing must play a role in this.
What do we mean by transparency in the workplace?
Transparency is the extent to which managers and leadership are open with all employees about their decision-making, as well as the long-term objectives and ongoing concerns of the business.
Employees need to be able to trust their bosses, and transparency is an essential part of that because it, in turn, demonstrates management’s trust in their staff. Reciprocity is key here, and trust is very much a two-way street.
Employees value transparency in the workplace because it helps to ensure a sense of fairness in the ways they are managed and rewarded. Transparency is essential for a sense of fairness in the workplace because it ensures that concerns of favouritism or inconsistency can be properly addressed.
But transparency also assures employees that their employers aren’t breaking the law, carrying out dubious activities or otherwise doing anything horrendously unethical that they might get unknowingly implicated in.
It’s for this reason that workplace whistleblowing is extremely important.
What is workplace whistleblowing?
Whistleblowing is the act of an employee alerting a higher authority (usually internal but not always) that the organisation they work for, or an individual, or group of, within it, is committing a crime related to the business, or otherwise abusing their power in some way.
In normal circumstances, leaking sensitive workplace information or outright violating confidentiality agreements can be grounds for dismissal or legal action. It’s important to note, however, that whistle-blowers are protected under the law, provided their actions are in the public interest, such as revealing illegal activity or discriminatory practices, for example.
How to encourage appropriate whistleblowing and what to do when it happens
Employers need to encourage and help to facilitate appropriate workplace whistleblowing with clear and effective communication. Namely, they need to give employees access to a means of reporting issues that doesn’t go through any of their immediate managers who may be involved in whatever the employee is trying to report.
It helps if your workplace already has a procedure in place for externally managed or anonymous complaints. Formal workplace whistleblowing is a very serious procedure, and there may be instances where something is a breach of ethical or professional standards but doesn’t fall under the legal purview of PIDA protection.
This can encourage employees to come forward a lot sooner because there are levels they can go through before escalating to the full pressure of formal whistleblowing.
But even though workplace whistleblowing is protected under law, employees can still face backlash in their personal lives for doing it. Colleagues might resent them, and some might try to interfere with the whistle-blower’s career or actively harass them.
This could damage their social wellbeing at work, or even threaten their physical safety and mental health. Because of this, it’s imperative for employers to ensure the anonymity of these employees during the whistleblowing process, as well as during and after any follow-up action unless they choose to self-identify, to protect them from reprisals.
Internal channels for whistleblowing are an absolute must for organisations that wish to be proactive in dealing with ethical issues or breaches of the law. While direct one-to-ones might be necessary for gaining more information, asynchronous communication tools represent a good first point of contact for anonymous whistleblowing.
We’ve seen first hand the importance of this with our weekly check-in, with one of our clients reporting an instance of whistleblowing via the check-in earlier this year. That client utilised private questioning within Weekly10 that allowed employees to direct any concerns around the behaviour or others, anonymously to a private inbox. Whilst it is the only example we know of so far, it shows the impact a channel such as this can have.
Failure to provide a safe means for workplace whistleblowing risks causing enough frustration and disengagement that employees feel the need to take what they know to an external regulator. It is, however, very important that you don’t do anything that could be interpreted as preventing the employee from taking their information to a regulator.
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