Last year, the UK’s Financial Conduct Authority received information from 900 whistleblowers. The Care and Quality Commission received more than 7,000 disclosures from whistleblowers. Imagine someone from your organisation blowing the whistle to the regulator.
What could you learn from this? That you’ve got some disloyal people in your organisation? Or that you need to encourage workers to speak up internally, instead of going to the regulator?
In fact, research shows that whistleblowing most often starts with people raising their concerns with their immediate manager. They then tend to raise the issue with top management. Only then do hotlines, auditors and regulators come into the picture. This is why whistleblowing is best perceived as a protracted process rather than a simple, one-off decision.
When employees initially raise a concern with their line manager they do not see themselves as whistleblowers. They are more likely to be just doing their job, spotting a mistake, or worried about negligence that has slipped through the net.
It is the reaction they get from their manager or from the top of the organisation that causes them to believe that what they are concerned about is not just a mistake, but something more systematic and perhaps part of an orchestrated scam.
How would you make sense of a situation where your manager is not interested when you tell them a client is being overbilled, patient rooms are too cold, signing-off procedures are not followed, or confidential information is inappropriately accessible?
What conclusions would you draw when your CEO says, “We’ll look into it”, but nothing changes? How pushed would you feel when, after you raise your concern, your allocated working hours go down, or you are pulled off an exciting project?
The problem for boards is not that whistleblowers are not encouraged enough to raise their concerns inside organisations. The problem is the way management responds.
Neither is the problem one of disloyal employees. Again, the more plausible explanation is that inappropriate responses from management send signals of disregard and contempt to loyal employees who raise concerns.
It is in such a process that employees slowly come to see themselves as whistleblowers, and take further action accordingly. Therefore, it might very well be that the problem lies with listening and responding to those who speak up, rather than with the whistleblower.
We used data from a whistleblower help and advice line to map the routes employees take to become whistleblowers. We looked at 868 whistleblower cases to track the routes workers take to raise their concerns.
To our surprise, we found that whistleblowing is mostly an inside story. The first time people spoke out, 91% did so internally. Of those who did so a second time, 76% did so internally. If they still went on to raise their concern a third time, 64% did so inside the organisation. And even at the fourth time, half of the whistleblowers were raising their concerns internally.
This is a clear indication that employees strongly prefer speaking out about wrongdoing within the organisation.
So who exactly do employees raise their concerns with inside the organisation? And what are the implications for processing that information?
Our research shows that 52% of whistleblowers first raised their concern with their line manager, and 22% with higher management. When whistleblowers raised their concern a second time, 14% did this with their line manager, and 33% with higher management.
Taken together, line managers and higher management were the initial recipients of 74% of whistleblower concerns. This is also where it appears to go wrong. When we look beyond the first steps, where management is the main recipient, we see that at the third step, grievances (25%) and external whistleblowing (35%) start to peak.
Raising a grievance (25%) is still internal but it shows that the employee is now frustrated, and perceives management to be retaliating against them. It also means that the trust whistleblowers had in their managers is now gone.
That is also the case for those who disclosed outside the organisation (35%). Of those, nearly six out of ten blew the whistle to a regulator, and almost four out of ten raised their concern with a professional body, the police, or a campaigning special interest group. Fewer than one in ten approached the media.
But what about specially designed disclosure channels? These include hotlines operated by specialised firms, or apps and contact points with compliance officers or internal auditors.
In our research, these channels picked up 4% of first-step whistleblowing, 10% at the second step, and 14% at the third step. We found that before employees use those channels, it is very likely that they have already raised their concern with their line manager, higher management, or both.
This finding has an important implication for operating such channels. Organisational speak-up policies nearly always bestow on these channels a guaranteed confidentiality to the whistleblower. Our research suggests, however, that the majority of those using such a channel have already raised their concern with someone else before seeking to raise it confidentially through a speak-up channel.
The implication is that in most cases, either the whistleblower’s line manager, higher management or both know who has raised the concern that audit or compliance is investigating.
Another caveat must be noted with regard to speak-up channels. Those in management positions and executives use such channels at an earlier stage than unskilled, skilled, or administrative workers.
A further difference related to formal power within organisations is that at the “second step”, professionals tend to either raise their concerns with higher management or through speak-up channels, compared with unskilled workers, who tend to either raise their concerns with their line manager, or alert a regulator or other external independent body.
Speak-up channels do not seem to be on the radar of blue collar workers, and it seems as though this key group of employees does not explore internal options aside from their line manager.
Paradoxically, our research tells us that raising a concern through a speak-up channel, and blowing the whistle—either to a regulator or another external independent body—are more effective from a whistleblower’s point of view in stopping the wrongdoing. That is to say that whistleblowing through a speak-up channel triggered more investigations, but in at least half of these instances the whistleblower did not have trust in the seriousness of the investigation.
Retaliation against whistleblowers was mentioned in nearly 40% of our cases. This suggests that for about 60% of whistleblowers who called the helpline, the management response was not of significance for the whistleblower, and that their whistleblowing had so far been unsuccessful—mainly because the wrongdoing was continuing.
We found that the organisational position of the whistleblower influenced the type of retaliation they incurred. Executives experienced more support, and unskilled workers experienced most retaliation short of dismissal.
Overall, at each step of the whistleblowing process, formal retaliation (e.g. relocation, demotion, job reassignment, suspension or disciplinaries) was as frequent as being dismissed.
So, what are the lessons to be drawn here? The first is that organisations should have the opportunity to hear concerns from employees. Whistleblowing is a protracted process, with employees seeking to raise their concerns with increasingly independent recipients, rather than merely deciding to blow the whistle externally if an internal channel is unsuccessful.
It appears that whistleblowers are quite persistent in assuming that top management acts in good faith. In a sense, every whistleblower disclosure to a regulator indicates a failure of top management to maintain employees’ trust in the organisation.
However, the second lesson is that the formal position of the whistleblower influences which person in the organisation will be perceived as appropriate to raise a concern with.
Speak-up channels are necessary, but those who design the policy on speaking and listening need to take the temperature for who is comfortable with which channel. Using multiple channels and interfaces is highly recommended.
The third lesson from our research is that it is crucial that management is responsive—and is seen to be responsive—to their employees’ concerns about wrongdoing. Our finding suggested that for whistleblowing to be effective, the organisational position of the whistleblower mattered far less than who they blew the whistle to.
Moreover, it seemed that whistleblowers were more likely to be successful in helping to stop the wrongdoing when it was no longer the organisation that decided whether or not the concern was legitimate.
The bottom line, therefore, is that whistleblowers should bypass management and turn to the regulator in the first instance, because organisations seem neither to be listening nor acting.
Dr Wim Vandekerckhove is reader in business ethics at the University of Greenwich. He has advised organisations including Transparency International, Public Concern at Work, the Whistleblower Authority in the Netherlands, and the UK Department of Health.
This article is based on Vandekerckhove, W. and Phillips, A. (2017), “Whistleblowing as a protracted process: A study of UK whistleblower journeys”, Journal of Business Ethics.