It seems like every day there is a headline about corporate misconduct.  Whether it's financial impropriety, sexual harassment, discrimination, or bullying, unethical behaviour is no longer swept under the carpet.  Organisations now face charges of misconduct in public, and all eyes are on how they respond and what actions they take.  

Whistleblowers help bring much of this misconduct into the light. We often read news stories about a whistleblower going public. However, for every public occurrence, there are hundreds of reports that remain within an organisation. Historically, these reports have focused on fraud, theft, and criminal activity. Nowadays, employees are expanding what they view as whistleblowing. They are now reporting unethical behaviours like harassment, discrimination, bullying, and workplace safety.

As whistleblowing has expanded, we've also seen an expansion of who is getting involved. Whistleblowing traditionally has been under the purview of the risk or legal team. Risk and legal focused on the impact the misconduct would have, typically from a financial perspective. As more whistleblowing reports focus on people issues, human resources (HR) is now getting more involved.

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Organisations are focusing their risk assessment not only on the financial impact but also the effect on employees. Additionally, as HR is now often known as "people & culture", there is a focus on the "culture" aspect of anonymous reporting. Companies have spent vast sums on developing and communicating their culture and values. Whistleblowing is a feedback loop to report when employees are not living up to the company's values.

HR leaders can bring a lot to any organisation's whistleblowing efforts. In this article, we will discuss different scenarios and how HR can play a bigger role. We'll illustrate how HR can be involved, where they can value, and why they should be a key part of any whistleblowing initiative.

Scenario #1: HR Supporting Existing Whistleblowing Initiatives

In larger organisations, risk, compliance, or legal tends to manage any existing whistleblowing program. This approach is historical in nature. Whistleblowing has focused more on criminal behaviour that posed a substantial financial risk. Misconduct tended to be theft, embezzlement, supplier fraud, or collusion that risk and compliance managers had expertise in dealing with.

As whistleblowing evolves, organisations have realised there is a human element along with risk. Looking at this element from a "micro" view focuses on the impact misconduct has on those involved. This includes ensuring those reporting misconduct are not retaliated against. It also means guaranteeing you treat those accused of misconduct fairly and professionally. The "macro" view focuses on the organisation's workforce as a whole and how misconduct can affect it. This includes how a single case can influence employees to the overall cultural impact of systemic misconduct. Organisations are waking up to the effect on their culture that misconduct causes.

Recently we've seen the rise of #MeToo along with an increased focus on a safe workplace. More employees are reporting discrimination, harassment, and bullying. The teams handling misconduct are now receiving whistleblowing reports focused these people issues. HR is uniquely qualified to help out and handle these reports. Boards and shareholders are also demanding more attention to people-related issues. Whistleblowing can no longer be the exclusive purview of risk, compliance, or legal. Existing whistleblowing programs need to involve HR and bring their skill set into what they have been doing.

Scenario #2: Expanding The Scope Of An Existing Whistleblowing Program

In the first scenario, we outlined how HR can support an existing whistleblowing program owned by another part of the business.  Increasingly we see whistleblowing efforts tackled based on the type of misconduct.  In this scenario, HR is collaborating with legal, risk, or compliance as an equal partner.  When employees report people-related misconduct, HR owns and manages these cases.  For other cases like fraud and theft, HR is supporting their colleagues as they investigate these cases. 

A collaborative approach recognises the strengths and skill-sets of each team.  HR, together with other teams, will manage the whistleblowing program.  Each team will take on the reports of misconduct best fitting their skill set.  This strategy recognises you need different approaches, specific skills, and even different workflows and processes to tackle different types of misconduct.

In this scenario, HR owns the process of receiving and investigating reports related to people issues.  While still using a standard whistleblowing policy and platform, it helps HR utilise its unique capabilities.  The challenge that comes with this approach is often communication. Employees might be familiar with the existing whistleblowing program, and any changes need to be clear. HR needs to ensure employees understand how the program is expanding and which teams will handle which cases.

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Scenario #3: Defining And Managing A New Whistleblowing Program

In our first two scenarios, there is an existing whistleblowing program in place, and HR is now playing a more significant role.  While whistleblowing programs are growing in popularity, in reality very few organisations have them in place.  They typically exist in larger public companies or those who have unique regulatory or compliance needs.  Many organisations have progressed to a code of conduct, but whistleblowing is an entirely new space for them.

HR can play a leadership role in developing a whistleblowing program.  Many organisations won't have dedicated risk and compliance professionals, and their legal teams might not have adequate resources. HR can use its experience and take the lead in conceptualising, implementing, and managing a whistleblowing program.  For most organisations, the majority of the misconduct reported anonymously is people-related.  HR is in the position to not only set up the platform but also to receive and investigate the reports once submitted.

Our best practice for HR managers facing this scenario is to lead the process, but also understand when to involve other colleagues.  Often this includes legal as well as anyone focused on risk and compliance.  You want to leverage their expertise and skill-sets and get their buy-in from the beginning.  It's crucial everyone is on the same page when they are needed to help investigate a report.

Scenario #4: Helping Extend A Company’s Values And Ethics To Related Parties

Companies have invested significant amounts of time and money in developing their corporate values.  Values help identify what they stand for and what behaviours they want to see from employees.  A growing trend is extending an organisations' values to their partners. We've seen this with organisations wanting suppliers to act ethically and responsibly, especially in developing countries.  Extending one's values is now growing in popularity with other partners like sales channels, outsourced providers, and 3rd party contractors.  If you're representing a company in some way, you should expect they will want you to adhere to their values and ethics.

While extending your corporate values to 3rd parties might be owned by a specific part of the business, HR can still play a vital role. Developing and communicating a company's values are almost always owned and managed by HR. It makes sense that HR plays a significant role in aligning your corporate values with your partners.

The key to successfully supporting these initiatives is to partner with your colleagues driving these efforts.  They might be supply chain, sales, fulfilment, or some other part of the business. It's essential to understand their goals and why they want to extend the company's values to partners.  In some cases, it's due to compliance-related needs (like the recent Modern Slavery legislation). In other instances it's due to the financial risk third parties pose to you.  Overall, it also to protect your reputation.  As your colleagues will own the relationships with 3rd parties, it crucial to collaborate when rolling out the program.  If you are already managing your whistleblowing program, providing it to third parties is a natural extension to what you've been doing.

Conclusion

As whistleblowing programs gain in popularity, we'll continue to see HR play a more active role in them.  HR brings a lot to the table, from supporting those involved to managing whistleblowing programs.  Having HR included also exposes other parts of the business to HR best practices.  Behind every whistleblowing report, there are people involved.  Treating them fairly and professionally is one of the key goals of all successful whistleblowing programs.

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