Seven ways to support whistleblowing as legal counsel

Whistleblowing is a powerful tool for promoting ethical organisational practices. Jan Stappers, director at risk and compliance management platform NAVEX, explores the indispensable role of legal experts in this sphere.
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As the gatekeepers of compliance, legal counsel helps ensure that whistleblowing programmes remain effective, robust and adhere to regulatory requirements.

Their expertise is vital for organisations to navigate the legislative complexities around policy implementation, employee education and intake mechanisms.

By guiding the framework of an organisation’s whistleblowing process, legal counsel helps prevent wrongdoing, establishes formal procedures and minimises legal risks, all while safeguarding reputation.

To successfully achieve these goals, there are seven best practices I recommend legal counsel become familiar with if you are tasked with any part of your organisation's whistleblowing programme.

1. Communicate clearly with employees

The cornerstone of any effective initiative is open communication across all channels. Even the most well-made programme will only succeed if employees are aware of it.

Legal counsel should advise organisations to:

  • inform employees about the procedures for making internal reports, including the designated person or team responsible for handling them and what happens to the information disclosed
  • provide regular training on reporting procedures and the importance of reporting, emphasising its role in maintaining organisational integrity
  • use written materials, such as handbooks or intranet resources, to supplement in-person training and ensure consistent messaging throughout the organisation – consider creating an easily accessible, centralised resource hub for employee reference
  • encourage an open-door policy where employees feel comfortable discussing potential concerns with management or designated individuals

2. Prioritise reporter confidentiality

Protecting the reporter’s identity is paramount to the success of a whistleblowing programme and is one of the most common requirements of whistleblowing protection legislation.

Legal counsel should ensure organisations:

  • implement strict confidentiality protocols to safeguard the identity of reporters, including limiting access to information on a need-to-know basis and using secure communication methods
  • safeguard employee confidentiality – and ensure everyone understands the potential consequences of breaching it, including disciplinary action and termination
  • develop procedures to prevent retaliation against reporters, including a transparent process for reporting retaliatory behaviours
  • regularly review and adjust procedures as needed to be effective – post-resolution check-ins with reporters are also an opportunity to assess how procedures work in practice

3. Offer multiple reporting channels

More avenues to disclose an issue increase the likelihood of employees reporting concerns.

Legal counsel should therefore advise organisations to:

  • offer multiple channels for employees to report concerns, including hotlines, email, web-based platforms and in-person meetings – this ensures accessibility and accommodates diverse preferences and comfort levels
  • offer at least one reporting channel to accept anonymous submissions to encourage employees who may otherwise not speak out to share what they know
  • regularly review and update reporting channels to address technological advances (such as QR codes) or emerging issues to ensure the process of reporting remains friendly and secure

4. Provide internal support for reporters

Comprehensive support of reporters – both for their welfare and guidance through the process – is important for programme success.

Legal counsel can help by advising the organisation:

  • establish a designated team or individual responsible for investigating reports, ensuring they have the necessary training, resources and independence to fulfil the role and its regulatory requirements – this ensures impartiality and a thorough investigation
  • provide support to whistleblowers throughout the process, including legal and psychological assistance if needed, demonstrating the organisation's commitment to their wellbeing
  • communicate regularly with the whistleblower during the investigation, providing updates on progress and outcomes in as much depth as possible while maintaining confidentiality
  • ask reporters (especially anonymous reporters) to follow up as investigators may have additional questions and/or resources

5. Create a solid code of conduct

A comprehensive code of conduct serves as a clear ethical guide for employees. As a result, best practice is to:

  • develop a comprehensive code of conduct to cover behaviours and expectations across all aspects of operations, including relationships with clients, suppliers and competitors
  • ensure the code is regularly reviewed to maintain its relevance – this helps to keep the code in line with evolving industry standards and legal requirements
  • provide training on the code of conduct to all employees, emphasising its importance and the consequences of non-compliance

Regularly refresh training to maintain its effectiveness.

6. Encourage a healthy corporate culture

The expectation of ethical behaviour is central to a healthy corporate culture.

An environment that promotes ethical behaviour is one where employees will be less likely to tolerate or be involved in misconduct.

Legal counsel should advise organisations to:

  • foster transparency, accountability and open communication through HR activities, board leadership, training and up-to-date policies
  • demonstrate commitment to transparency and address misconduct by celebrating successes and sharing lessons learned – reinforcing the importance of ethical conduct is the best way to show its value
  • ensure senior leaders, including partners and executives, set a strong example of ethical behaviour and openly support the reporting process

Senior leaders' endorsement carries significant weight – and demonstrates that senior members of staff are not exempt from expectations or immune to consequences.

7. Offer employee feedback surveys

Regular employee feedback surveys are a barometer for gauging morale and culture between program changes.

Legal counsel should advise organisations to:

  • conduct regular employee surveys to gauge overall organisational culture and identify areas of concern, potential improvement or emerging patterns
  • use survey results to inform the ongoing development and refinement of whistleblowing policies and practices
  • implement action plans based on survey findings, address identified shortcomings and communicate changes to the wider organisation

As organisations navigate the complexities of today's legal landscape, vigilance in maintaining ethical standards will be essential for long-term success.

By adhering to these seven best practices and supporting tactics, legal counsel can contribute to the ethical foundations of their organisation to benefit employees, clients, suppliers and stakeholders.

Find out more

Explore our practice note on implementing whistleblowing arrangements. It sets out best practice on reporting concerns and other practical considerations.

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