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Whistleblowers and Integrity: Encouraging Employees to Speak Up

By Kelleen Brennan and Andrea Falcione, JD, CCEP

· whistleblower,speak up,webinar,DOJ Guidance

To share some in-house perspective, we’re excited to welcome Kelleen Brennan, Associate General Counsel at Carvana, to the Rethink Compliance blog today. Kelleen leads the Compliance Team at Carvana and is a Rethink client. She has led compliance functions in a number of highly regulated industries, focusing on strategic and innovative problem solving that supports company value while mitigating risk.

If you’ve seen the latest DOJ guidance, you've probably noticed a whole section (D) is dedicated to assessing the effectiveness of a company’s reporting structure. Why? Whistleblowers play an important role in corporate accountability.

Snapshot of Section D of the DOJ's 2020 Guidance Document

Last week (coincidentally, on World Whistleblower Day), we hosted a webinar alongside the EQS Group: “Whistleblowing & Integrity: How to Create a Culture of Integrity.” (If you missed the webinar, you can catch the recording here.)

In the webinar, we covered six considerations for improving your organization’s whistleblower program and culture of ethics. We thought we’d share a few takeaways from the webinar here to help you get your reporting system in shape for the new DOJ guidelines.

Be Supportive of Anonymous Reporting

A “speak up” culture is only possible when employees feel comfortable raising concerns. Many employees are afraid to make a report because they’re worried about feeling foolish or don’t want to bring attention to themselves. Employee reports allow companies to proactively address policy gaps, education needs, and other program improvement opportunities before more serious events occur.

A “speak up” culture is only possible when employees feel comfortable raising concerns.

And, anonymous reports can be key to getting ahead of unethical situations. They can also be far more challenging to investigate, so it’s important to structure intake questions — and your whistleblower systems — in ways that produce the maximum amount of information. Getting the right information up front can help you uncover systemic issues in the company.

Get to Know Your Audience

The right messaging can make all the difference in encouraging employees to use your reporting system. And as with any effective communications plan, you have to start with your audience.

First, you need to understand the baseline. Are employees aware of the company’s reporting program? How confident are they in the system? What motivates them to speak up?

The new DOJ Guidance included language for assessing whether a company takes measures to “test whether employees are aware of the hotline and feel comfortable using it.” This is where bottom-up assessments like employee surveys come in. But it’s also important to actually go out and talk to employees. Often, you’ll be surprised how different those conversations are from what you’re hearing at the top.

The Right Messages — In the Right Places

Once you understand your audience’s awareness and attitudes toward your reporting system, you can figure out which messages and channels will allow you to communicate most effectively. Keep in mind this is rarely one-size-fits-all, because your employees have different concerns and motivations.

For example, in the webinar, Andrea shared a story about a client company that had two distinct lines of business: one newer and digital, and one more traditional. One group of employees felt supported by the organization with the information and resources they needed, while the other group felt left behind and believed the company didn’t care about them any more. For this company, communicating effectively meant talking to these two groups very differently to address their fears and needs.

One audience segment to think about is managers. Do they understand what retaliation is? Are they clear on what their responsibilities are when an employee comes to them with a concern or if they become aware of retaliation? There are lots of ways to communicate the important information without getting into the nitty gritty. For example, this texting video from the Rethink library is a short but effective way to remind managers of their duties when it comes to preventing retaliation.

Example of an anti-retaliation texting video for managers from the Rethink Compliance Library

Most employees want to work for an ethical company, and having an effective whistleblower program in place is an essential part of a corporate culture of integrity. As compliance professionals, it’s up to us to make sure employees feel safe and comfortable raising concerns.

Want to learn more about improving the effectiveness of your whistleblower program? Check out the recording of our “Whistleblowing & Integrity” webinar.

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