Leading integrated risk and compliance management solutions company, NAVEX Global®, has revealed that European organisations have the lowest overall whistleblowing reporting rate globally, along with the slowest time for case closures. The 2020 Regional Whistleblowing Hotline Benchmark Report, which is based on 1.4m reports globally, found European organisations’ median number of reports to be 0.5 per 100 employees – significantly less than all other regions, and well below the 1.5 reports per 100 employees seen for North American organisations.
This is concerning as businesses should be actively embracing whistleblowing as an early warning system for potential issues. This is especially prominent now, considering the substantial impact 2020 has had, and will continue to have, on the workplace. Katharine James, CSMP®, a Senior Leader in the BBC and currently the Head of Governance in the Safety, Security and Resilience Department points out: “Whistleblowers are not bad for business. In fact, quite the opposite. At the BBC we actively encourage people to report issues, as we want to know about them so we can fix the problem. We appreciate our employees are our eyes and ears on the ground and we need them to feel comfortable reporting. Then it’s our duty to investigate it thoroughly.”
Ian Painter, Associate Director, Marketing, at NAVEX Global and one of the report authors, says: “Concerningly, the time taken to close a case is also slowest in Europe, compared to any other region, with a median case closure time of 83 days. So, even though European organisations receive the fewest reports, they take longer than their global counterparts to address them.”
With lockdown 2.0 in full effect in the UK, as well as the continued disruption to the global workplace that the pandemic is causing, organisations can expect these reporting challenges to intensify.
“As a general rule, COVID-19 has seen case closure timeframes increase. This is down to a wide variety of reasons, from health related absences to remote working limitations. For example, in investigations that are highly sensitive – such as historical sexual misconduct – the investigator may wish to interview the key players, including the complainant and alleged perpetrator, in person. If any of the individuals involved in this process become ill, or have to self-isolate, the meeting will have to be delayed.” says Ed Mills, Head of the Employment Department at Travers Smith LLP. His practice covers the full range of contentious and non-contentious employment law issues. He explains: “What’s more, gathering evidence can take longer , as accessing hard copy data is more challenging while people are based remotely. In addition, many businesses have found themselves busier than ever thanks to the new, time consuming challenges the pandemic has created, which can pose resourcing challenges. All of which increase the length of time it takes to conduct and close an investigation.”
Harassment and retaliation reports on the rise
The report also found that European organisations continue to have significantly higher reporting rates for harassment as a percentage of overall whistleblowing reports, coming in at 11%. This compares with 4% for North American organisations. And whilst in person harassment might decline as an outcome of remote working, there could still be a possible spike in reports of this nature in the coming months, as well as different kinds of complaints raised, based on people’s behaviours whilst working remotely.
Katherine explains: “The lockdown period will have provided some employees with the ability to physically distance themselves from the person/people they are reporting. Whilst also giving others time to think about and realise that a situation they found themselves in was not above board. On the flip side, employees may be experiencing higher concern levels around retaliation due to the economic climate during the pandemic. This could dissuade them from reporting as they may believe their name could end up on ‘the list’ when future cuts are considered.”
Fear of retaliation has always been a huge concern when it comes to whistleblowing. Alleviating this fear must be prioritised when businesses are preparing their risk and compliance plans for 2021, especially given that reports of retaliation are rising and the introduction of an EU Directive on whistleblower protection will take effect next year.
Whilst the percentage of retaliation reports for European organisations accounted for only 1.1% of all reports in the latest benchmarking report, this is up from 0.9% in 2018. The report also revealed that substantiation rates for these reports in Europe were cited at 42%, compared to 24% in North America. This metric deserves attention as it is often used by organisations as a measure of the effectiveness of their speak-up programme. In addition, it can reveal how well employees understand the nature and purpose of the programme, providing invaluable insights into how effective the organisation’s code of conduct and investigation processes are.
Communication is key
The findings of the report make it clear that communication is the key when it comes to an effective ‘speak up’ system. European organisations had the lowest level of anonymous reporting rates globally in 2019, at 52%. This is a clear indication that people in Europe are more trusting in going direct to line managers, or other sources, to raise complaints. However, with direct reporting now impacted by remote working, businesses must think of other ways to encourage people to feel safe when coming forward. Implementing solutions that provide a clear route for reporting, and protect businesses from a risk and compliance perspective, will be key in 2021 – especially as the benchmarks showed reporting levels significantly increase when employees are given access to a wider range of reporting channels.
Giles Newman, Managing Director, International at NAVEX Global concludes, “Organisations need to develop a high level of trust in their speak-up programmes, so people feel safe and secure to come to them when things aren’t right. But it doesn’t stop with the disclosure. Training and awareness on whistleblowing processes and anti-retaliation policies should be regularly communicated to all employees, especially those working remotely. And, all management should be given clear expectations on how to identify retaliation and prevent it from occurring. If organisations recognise that whistleblowing is a critical tool to identify potentially damaging issues, they can protect themselves by tackling those issues before they escalate.”