Whistleblowing in a digital age

Sheila Fahy

Are employers missing a trick with whistleblowing? Sure, most employers have whistleblowing policies in place which provide guidance to staff on the procedures for making a protected disclosure and, mirroring the law, offer protection against retaliation for those who do blow the whistle. But, do employers really encourage their employees to “speak up”? Do employers live and breathe the message from the top, that raising genuine concerns about unlawful or unethical conduct is a commercial imperative?

Some employers go to great efforts to do this; others have not yet grasped the benefits of uncovering wrongdoing in a context that affords an opportunity to fix the problem in a safe environment. And so an app is born. A new app, designed in the U.S., plugs the gap in the marketplace by allowing employees to speak freely about what is happening at work, be it whistleblowing or just chitter-chatter – all on an anonymous basis. The “wow” factor with this app is not that disclosures can be made anonymously (as many employers already have this facility with confidential hotlines), it is that there is a demand for a safe place outside of the workplace, outside of the control of the employer, and outside of a culture that views whistleblowers with hostility.

I was sceptical at first; I am a firm believer in freedom of expression with responsibility. For me, this means putting a name to feedback, be it positive or negative, as it forces the author to curate with responsibility by justifying comments with concrete examples. The idea that an employee has free reign to say anything about his or her employer under the cloak of anonymity unbalances the scales. Imagine if there was an app for employers to comment anonymously about employees who departed on bad terms. It’s unthinkable.

I am sitting on my scepticism for the moment, as I appreciate that the safe environment needed to deal with disclosures equally applies to the making of disclosures. Evidence with mighty provenance from the likes of the Whistleblowing Commission and the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards indicate that the key barrier to effective whistleblowing is a fear of repercussions for having drawn attention to wrongdoing. Until employers embrace a work environment where speaking out with genuine concerns is viewed positively, employees will find safe spaces outside of the workplace in which to vent their concerns.

 

 

Comments published on Employment Talk do not necessarily reflect the views of Allen & Overy.

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