Creating a Whistleblower Policy and Enforcing It

The term whistleblower is one that can have negative connotations from the business perspective in a lot of cases.

It can be met with apprehension, and business owners and company leaders tend to think about lawsuits and litigation instantaneously. The idea of encouraging employees to be whistleblowers doesn’t have to be negative from the business perspective, however.

Encouraging whistleblowers can prevent a lot of deeper and more expensive problems in the future.

Whistleblower policy documentation

A whistleblower is someone who’s reporting the violation of law by their employer. That is obviously something that isn’t favorable for the employer, but for this purposes of this guide, it’s also useful to look at a whistleblower as anyone who speaks out against something happening in the business.

Federal law may refer to the employer-employee dynamic, but what about other employees? What about coming out and speaking about something that an employee sees as inappropriate between two other employees?

One example could be sexual harassment. Another time this could be relevant would be something like expense fraud.

Why Is Whistleblower Protection Important?

Outside legal whistleblower protections come from both the federal government and also state governments.

The idea of state and federal protection is that anyone who speaks out against their employer or reports a violation is protected from retaliation. Most states also have something called a common-law claim in place, which takes effect for an employer takes that action against an employee after a law violation is reported.

For these whistleblower protections to be enforced, an employee has to report violations to an outside authority.

With all that being said, for the most part, employees aren’t necessarily going to go to a lawyer and report seeing possible sexual harassment taking place or fraud in the workplace.

When there are no internal actions that can be taken or an employee doesn’t feel comfortable doing so, it’s damaging for the business. It can increase turnover rates, and it can diminish corporate culture. It can also encourage the bad behavior to continue, and end up costing businesses a lot of money. For example, businesses may have to pay a huge sexual harassment settlement, rather than proactively taking care of it when it was first noticed.

With the #MeToo movement such a pivotal consideration right now, businesses have to think about what’s happened within those organizations that didn’t deal with employee reports of misconduct the way they should have. Entire businesses have been forced to shutter when in reality had they had a reporting policy in place and then followed it, this wouldn’t have happened.

What a lot of businesses don’t understand is that first, fraud is expensive and it’s much more common than they might believe.

Also, no matter what technology might be available or what other steps may be taken, employee tips are the best way not only to identify but also stop fraud in the workplace.

Employees who know they’re working somewhere that respects and values reporting these instances are going to be less likely to do anything illegal or unethical. Unfortunately for some businesses, they don’t already have this kind of culture in place, so there’s nothing that feels like a real deterrent in the eyes of many employees.

Creating a Policy for Employee Protection

When a company is creating a policy for reporting and protecting employees who step up and report wrongdoing, there are a few big things to keep in mind.

First, the entire policy and process need to be focused on encouraging employees to self-report. The policy needs to be very specific in outlining how employees can do that, why they should do it, and the methods they can use to make a report.

Along with the policy aimed at helping employees understand their options, the people responsible for dealing with complaints should also have a separate policy. This policy needs to outline the steps that should be taken from start-to-finish when something is reported.

When a policy is black and white with no gray area, it makes employees less fearful to come forward, because they know what to expect.

The specific elements of whistleblower protection policies should include:

  • There should be a system for a complaint to be made. The best systems have multiple ways a person can make a complaint so that there’s an option they’ll feel comfortable with. For example, options can include a separate email address where complaints can go, as well as a hotline, and maybe an old-fashioned comment box placed somewhere. The policy needs to very clearly state how the anonymity of the employee will be protected if they make a submission.
  • The policy should include the steps that are taken to thoroughly investigate claims once they’re made. All claims need to be followed up on, to ensure employees that the policy is legitimate and is followed.
  • There should also be a policy regarding just retaliation on its own. The policy needs to be aimed at helping employees understand how they will be protected against retaliation, and managers and company leaders need to be trained regarding what their role is in preventing retaliation.

Training Employees, Managers and Company Leaders

Once there is a very specific policy in place, the training begins. The best way to emphasize the importance of whistleblower protection to everyone in an organization is to train them on it.

You don’t want anyone, from entry-level employees to company executives thinking the protection policy is symbolic only. It needs to be a real, working component of everyday business.

As part of training, all employees should be aware of what their role is within the overall whistleblower policy.

For employees, the focus of training should be on how important it is that they do come forward when they see something, and how that will be handled.

For managers, the focus should be on how complaints are investigated and how to ensure there is no retaliation.

For company leaders, the training focus needs to be on the strategic goals and benefits of whistleblower protections, as well as larger legal ramifications.

Training on whistleblower protection shouldn’t just be something that happens during onboarding and is then forgotten. Training needs to be regularly updated to stay current, and employees need to be frequently retrained, especially if there are changes.