Whistleblowing: what are the most effective speak up channels?

Giving your employees access to the right speak up channels (or ‘intake’ channels) is a critical part of any whistleblowing programme.

But what are the most commonly used channels, what are their pros and cons, and which are likely to be the most effective within your organisation?

Choosing the right channel

As the UK’s leading provider of speak up services, these are subjects we’re asked about daily. We usually respond with a range of questions that are designed to help the client reach their own conclusion. These include:

  • What type of environment/s do your employees work in?
  • Where are they based, and are communication networks reliable?
  • What languages do they speak?
  • What demographic data do you have about your employees (age, level of education, etc.)?
  • What might prevent your users from speaking up?
  • What are you, the organisation, trying to achieve?

Once these areas have been considered, it’s possible to begin assessing the various intake channels available to you and determining which are likely to be the most effective.

Common intake channels

  1. Face-to-face

Every speak up programme should give employees the chance to discuss concerns face-to-face. As well as encouraging openness, it may be the most effective way to address many issues – particularly where simple miscommunication or misunderstanding is the source of any unease.

Many organisations insist such disclosures are made to an immediate line manager, or even a senior manager, which may discourage reports. Appointing speak up ‘champions’ from within the company, with whom employees can discuss their concerns in confidence, can provide greater reassurance.

Advantages of face-to-face reporting:

  • Often faster and more convenient than other channels.
  • Provides reassurance that the concern has been received.
  • Promotes an open working culture.
  • Follow-up is usually straightforward.

Disadvantages of face-to-face reporting:

  • Makes anonymity impossible.
  • Inappropriate for reports concerning the report recipient, or reports that may create a conflict of interest.
  • Requires an environment where employees have easy access to managers/champions.
  1. Telephone

Telephone reporting is often the most popular intake method due to its relatively simple set-up and ease of access. It usually takes one of two forms: operator-supported or voice messaging.

Mechanisms can be employed that allow anonymous users to call back for feedback or to respond to requests for further information. Other features such as intelligent call routing, multilingual support and voice prompts may further improve the user experience.

Advantages of telephone reporting:

  • Accessible from most countries in the world.
  • Globally accepted and understood as a speak up channel.
  • Provides opportunity to report anonymously.
  • Two-way conversation can result in more detailed reporting.

Disadvantages of telephone reporting:

  • Difficult and expensive to administer if needs are more complex (such as with languages, timezones).
  • Untrained operators may lack the skill to uncover key information.
  • Voice messaging limits the opportunity for questioning.
  • Follow up questions can only reach anonymous users if they decide to call again.
  1. Web portal

Along with telephone reporting, web reporting is the most commonly employed intake channel for speak up reports. Its flexibility enables users to submit their report at any time without the need for additional support, and it can be scaled (quite easily) to support a range of languages.

Web reports usually take the form of an online survey and are typically submitted via a dedicated portal or page. It may allow for two-way communication with reporters – even those who choose to remain anonymous (providing they choose to log in again at a later date).

Advantages of web reporting:

  • Accessible 24/7.
  • Cheaper to maintain than a manned telephone service.
  • Easy to provide in multiple languages.
  • Communication with anonymous reporters is possible.
  • Supporting evidence can be attached to a report.
  • Can include links to relevant supporting information (such as policies and guidance).

Disadvantages of web reporting:

  • User must have access to and familiarity with using a connected device.
  • Reliable internet connection is required.
  • Can create distrust around user tracking (IP/location data).
  1. Post

Postal channels are occasionally used when the user wants to maintain complete anonymity, supply physical evidence relating to their report (including photographs or documents), or ensure their report reaches a specific individual/department.

Information provided by post may only deliver a portion of the full story, and with no contact details provided, follow-up may prove impossible.

Advantages of postal reporting:

  • Original physical evidence can be shared.
  • Can be used with complete anonymity.
  • Difficult to intercept once in the postal system.

Disadvantages of postal reporting:

  • Can be unreliable.
  • Cost and effort can be off-putting for all but the most determined reporters.
  • Disclosure will be unstructured, and therefore may lack critical information.
  • Impossible to follow up with anonymous reporters.
  1. Email

Email reporting involves setting up a dedicated mailbox to receive disclosures, and inviting users to email their concerns directly to it. It is perhaps the simplest and cost-effective intake channel available.

Email offers several benefits including ease-of-use, the option to communicate anonymously via a personal email account, and speed of submission. However, disclosures made by email do not have to follow any pre-defined structure, which may mean the report lacks relevant details.

Advantages of email reporting:

  • Fast and reliable form of reporting.
  • Enables two-way conversation, if the reporter is willing to allow it.
  • Supporting evidence can be attached to reports.
  • Reports can be made from any internet/data connected device.

Disadvantages of email reporting:

  • Disclosure will be structured by the reporter, and therefore may lack critical information.
  • Can lack the security of more structured channels.
  • Unstructured format can make processing more time-consuming.
  1. Mobile app

Apps that enable users to report concerns from a smart device, like Expolink’s SpeakingUp™ app, remain few and far between – but are likely to eventually overtake other channels. This is because they combine the very best elements of other popular channels in one convenient package.

In regions where traditional communication infrastructure has been slow to develop, use of mobile networks and smartphones has effectively ‘leapfrogged’ landline and broadband take-up. Mobile apps can therefore connect people who may otherwise have found it difficult to raise their concern, and engage those who value the overall convenience of mobile reporting over other channels.

Advantages of mobile app reporting:

  • Reports can be made anytime, anywhere.
  • Enables two-way communication – even with anonymous reports.
  • Secure and reliable.
  • Appropriate for use in countries with developing infrastructures.

Disadvantages of mobile app reporting:

  • Dependent on mobile data or internet connection.
  • User must have access to a smartphone that isn’t shared.

Choice matters…but user experience is critical

One or many channels?

There’s no question that providing a choice of channels will deliver a more effective speak up programme. To illustrate why, consider the following scenario:

A finance assistant in an open plan office has identified a potential expenses fraud relating to the Managing Director. Meanwhile in the factory, a production line worker has witnessed a safety breach that could put colleagues and customers at risk.

COMPANY A allows these employees to report their concerns face-to-face to a line manager, or by recorded telephone message. The telephone mailbox can only be reached during working hours using an internal extension number. It is monitored by the HR department.

COMPANY B allows these employees to report their concerns using the same channels as COMPANY A, and additionally a web portal. Like the telephone channel, the web portal can only be accessed internally during working hours. All reports are received by the HR department.

COMPANY C allows employees to use the same channels as COMPANY B. It also provides access to an independent third party who can receive reports anonymously via telephone or web, 24/7. All reports are received by the HR department.

While this example helps illustrate the importance of choice, it also shows why issues like accessibility and user experience are equally important.

While Company B offers a wider choice than Company A, its employees can still only raise their concern during working hours. This may prove difficult for the production line worker who cannot leave his station or access a computer, and the finance assistant who is surrounded by colleagues all day.

Company C, however, has considered the circumstances of its employees. While it offers exactly the same channels as the other two, it recognises that anonymity and accessibility may prove decisive in whether they choose to make a report, or not.

By considering the user experience alongside the channels you might use, you will increase the opportunity for employees to speak up in a way that’s most comfortable for them. Most importantly, you will reduce the risk of missing out on critical information that might help you protect your people, customers and your profits.

Expolink John Wilson

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