Anonymity for whistleblowers – how feasible is it and why the success of your whistleblowing programme depends upon it

Organisations rely on individuals, particularly employees, to bring to their attention information on actual or potential misconduct that may be occurring in the workplace. The fear of retaliation including a resultant negative impact on career prospects can cause major worry for employees who wish to speak up about their concerns. An obvious way to mitigate these concerns is to allow reports to be made anonymously.

There is still trepidation from many about how realistic it is to maintain anonymity either because the details shared in a report reveal identities, too many people are given access to a report or, more worryingly, because someone, for whatever reason seeks to uncover the individual, such as the well-publicised 2016 case at Barclays Bank.

What steps can be taken to protect anonymity for those that raise concerns via an internally managed whistleblowing line?

If your whistleblowing programme is managed internally you will find that the number of reports will be at best low, and at worst it won’t be used at all. Employees in this case do not tend to feel comfortable that they can retain their anonymity, and therefore do not make the call. This could be because they know the individual or team who manage the hotline, or because they feel the details they need to share will indirectly reveal their identity.

There are a few steps that can be put in place to encourage employees to make that call in this instance:

  • Ensure that senior management strongly promote the message that the organisation supports those that speak-up anonymously and will protect those individuals.
  • Share the main questions that will be asked on the phone so whistleblowers can prepare their answers in advance, reducing the chance they will give away any identifying details.
  • Give details about who will answer the phone at specific times so that callers can choose when to call to avoid a colleague they know, or that they don’t feel comfortable talking to, answering.
  • Explore alternative ways to speak-up such as an online portal that doesn’t require the user to provide identifying information.

Online reporting via a third party may look like the best way to maintain anonymity, but does it deliver the best results for the employee and the organisation?

The ability to make reports online via a third party provider can provide greater comfort to employees that they can remain anonymous. However, the report itself is likely be less detailed and the technology used for internal systems is often not designed to allow further contact with the individual for follow-up questions or to give them feedback. Overall this can lead to a sub-standard report on which little or no action can be taken, which is not good for the organisation and ultimately this also impacts employees’ willingness to make reports as they don’t see any measurable actions taking place. In this case, employees’ expectations are not managed and the overall whistleblowing programme suffers.

Safecall (like some other whistleblowing providers) counters these challenges as an independent whistleblowing service that provides both telephone hotline and online reporting facilities. Employees and other stakeholders are able to make their report by their chosen method, but regardless of the method chosen they are given secure log-in details to allow them to check back on progress of their report and interact with Safecall, their employer or both to continue the conversation and give feedback to any follow-up questions. It is vital that even though a report is made online the human touch is not lost. This process ensures they can be confident they will remain anonymous and that their expectations can be managed.

Regardless of the number of technology solutions offered, people still want to speak to people; you just have to ensure that the persons you entrust to speak to your employee at this crucial time are the right people, with life experience and who are able to treat that person as an individual; and when needed, help them maintain their anonymity.

Once a report is made and circulated internally how can anonymity be protected?

This is the tricky line that an organisation faces. The more detailed a report the more effectively an organisation can act on it. The flip side of this being that this detail may make it difficult at times to maintain anonymity. An organisation that takes its corporate governance seriously will have numerous steps in place to assure anonymity to the extent possible. These could include:

  • Minimising the number of people seeing any identifiable details.
  • Redacting elements of the report before sharing it with a broader team.
  • Putting processes in place to monitor any repercussions for the person that made the report if their identity were to come out.
    • For example reviewing the employee records for a period after the report was made to ensure there is no unusual activity such as unfairly missed promotions or workplace harassment.
    • Regularly scheduled Human Resources catch-ups with the reporting employee.

Anonymous reporting vs. an identifiable reporter: the organisation’s viewpoint

With the correct processes and tools in place, as well as buy-in from senior management, it is possible to protect the identities of those that make whistleblowing reports and this should always be given as a reporting option. The conflict for the organisation to manage is that it may be preferable that whistleblowers do identify themselves to allow it to improve on the back of the investigations into the whistleblowing reports made.

Getting the best solution in place that allows for both anonymity and protected disclosure can make all the difference for both the organisation and employees. At Safecall we often find that whistleblowers initially request to remain anonymous but, once they have begun to make the report they become comfortable speaking to our call handler and gain confidence in the process and ultimately rescind this anonymity request so that they can more effectively help to resolve the situation, this ultimately leading to better outcomes for all.

Effective whistleblowing programmes can reveal information that would otherwise go undetected, and are therefore a vital source of human intelligence. Implemented and managed well, the information that comes through the whistleblowing channels can often be critical to the organisation, ensuring it operates according to the law and to an appropriate standard, and protects the wellbeing of all its employees and investors.

Safecall is a leading provider of an ethics telephone hotline as well as an online reporting system and a Case Management System through which people can speak up. We work with over 400 organisations around the world delivering expert reporting.

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