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Whistleblowers Are a Good Thing

A recent Harvard Business Review article pointed out something startling – whistleblowers are a good thing for companies. In fact, according to the HBR article, “The more employees use internal whistleblowing hotlines, the less lawsuits companies face, and the less money firms pay out in settlements.” Seriously.

If we step back from this for a moment, the conclusion doesn’t seem as counterintuitive as it first appears. Companies that use and champion their internal reporting structures have opportunities to learn about problems faster. Employees feel like they actually can and should report irregularities and problems, even if those problems aren’t really problems after all. When employees do speak up, they know that their organizations will actually do something about it.

Fostering this in every organization is not that easy. While it does not require fancy-schmancy, third-party hotline providers or more staff to answer employee concerns, it does require a culture that seeks out problems even if those who report them don’t have answers. This can be difficult, especially where organizations are stuck in one way of doing things. Here are a few things any HR team can do to foster an environment on the lookout for concerns:

Create reporting infrastructure. Organizations need to have ways for employees to report bad behavior, including  , financial irregularities, and conflicts of interests. There shouldn’t be only one way to report. There can be a hotline, for sure, but you should also allow employees to talk to Human Resources or any manager. By creating multiple ways for people to report, employees are not searching for ways to report.

Talk about the reporting infrastructure. Once you have created reporting structure, you have to tell employees about it. Put it in your handbook. Post it in the breakroom. Talk about it in trainings. Put reminders in employee newsletters. According to the famous Marketing Rule of Seven, the average person needs to hear something seven times before it really sinks in, so extolling the virtue of your reporting infrastructure over and over can’t hurt anyone.

Train managers on how to ask about concerns. Managers need to be curious about their teams and how team members interact within the team and with others. However, managers are often not trained on how to be curious or how to ask questions to determine if everything is going smoothly. So, we have to train them. Give them scenarios that are close to what could happen, and then train them to ask questions about the scenario. During this, they’ll learn how to ask the right questions and who to tell about the problems.

Train managers on how to listen. Knowing how to ask the right question isn’t enough – managers also need to know how to listen. They need to know some of the trigger words or phrases, such as leave, irregularity, doesn’t make sense, and not in line with policy. If a manager asks good questions and listens for the answers, your organization is half way to being problem free.

Take action. Once a concern is reported, do an investigation. Talk to people. Look at records. Determine if there is a problem. If there is, do something about it. Discipline. Make changes. If you do nothing, you are part of the problem.

Close the loop. Once you’ve taken some action, go back to the original employee and thank them. Tell them that action has been taken. Tell them that, if they see any more irregularities or have any other concerns, you want to know about them. Again, thank them. They have done the organization a huge favor by pointing out the concern. If nothing came of their report, explain why and again, thank them. Even if they are a perceived “Negative Nelly” who seemingly complains of everything, eventually, they will bring you something that will require action.

Moreover, by closing the loop, the employee gets some satisfaction that they helped. They made a difference. This is more valuable than any bonus you could ever pay. It will also foster more reports for the particular employee and their compatriots. This is what you’re hoping for.

We used to cringe at the word “whistleblower.” We should welcome it. If the HBR study described above means anything, we should celebrate those who come forward by listening, taking action, and then thanking them.