We operate in heavily regulated times.
Whichever sector you're in, you will be subject to numerous laws and regulations. You are therefore vulnerable to people within your business blowing the whistle on you – rightly or wrongly.
The effects of this can be devastating – through:
- Enforcement action by relevant authorities
- Adverse publicity
- Impact on internal morale
- Legal action from the whistle-blower
My top five suggestions for minimising these risks are to:
1. Have a written policy in place
The policy does not have to be long and complicated. Basically, it should:
- Tell people how they can bring any genuine concerns about malpractice within the business to the attention of the relevant managers or Board members
- Encourage them to do so
- Reassure them that they will not be treated any less favourably if they do this
- Tell them about the limited circumstances in which they can make external disclosures
- Warn them that making malicious or vexatious disclosures could result in disciplinary action up to and including dismissal
2. Train managers
Training should enable managers to:
- Spot a potential whistle-blowing disclosure
- Avoid knee-jerk reactions based on the whistle-blower being a trouble-maker, a traitor or a general pain in the backside!
- Know when to step aside and involve others, both inside and outside the business
- Investigate concerns objectively
3. Act – and act fast
- Do not sit back and hope a concern of this kind will just go away. Put your policy and training into action as soon as you can
- If the concerns are justified, put them right and thank the whistleblower for raising them
- Avoid any temptation to mount a cover- up. The cover-up will usually get you into a whole lot more trouble than the original problem
4. Do not victimise
- This is more difficult than it sounds. Even if the concerns raised turn out to be unjustified, and cause you a major headache, avoid the temptation to sack or discipline the whistle-blower, unless you really do have convincing evidence of malice or vexatiousness (on which you should take external advice)
- Ensure that others in the business (especially those who may have been accused of wrongdoing – and their allies) do not victimise the whistle-blower
5. Settle if you like, but do not rely on gagging
In practice, incidents of whistle-blowing quite frequently result in legal disputes.
It is very often sensible to settle the dispute rather than going all the way to a public Court or Tribunal hearing – but note that:
- Confidentiality clauses are legally ineffective against whistle-blowers – and trying to enforce them often makes things worse
- It is more effective (when possible) to persuade the whistle-blower that the concern has been properly dealt with and have that acknowledged in the settlement agreement
- Mediation is often a more effective way of trying to settle disputes of this kind than negotiation. The involvement of an impartial, expert mediator – when the stakes are high, and feelings are also likely to be running high on both sides – can be invaluable
- You should not allow yourself to be blackmailed.