What worries me about whistleblowing…

old phone

I’ve been worrying about whistleblowing lately. In particular, whether traditional methods of reporting are really effective – because the level of reporting in many organisations just seems low. And I’m not sure that this is a situation where ‘least said is soonest mended’, as the saying goes. If there’s misconduct occurring the compliance team needs to know, and fast.

Risks and reporting behaviours

We understand that wrongdoing is more likely to occur in some locations and business operations than others. Arguably, these are the locations where it is most important to make reporting concerns as simple and straightforward as possible. But, in reality, how easy is it?

Thinking about risk profile vs ease of reporting, I did a quick analysis looking at the bottom third of countries in Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index and then cross referenced to the official language of the country and their main industries.

What struck me was the prevalence of very high-risk industries (all the extractive industries, construction, tobacco etc.) in these very high-risk locations. What’s also interesting is the language profile of these countries. While the ‘official’ language may be English, French, Spanish or Portuguese, reflecting their colonial history, these are often multi-lingual societies where only a very small proportion of the population actually speaks the official language. There are a lot of other languages in the list too. Azerbaijani, Ukrainian, Russian, Lao, Bengali – in total I found 28 different official languages in TI’s 60 most corrupt countries.

The problem with phone calls…

Many organisations’ reporting systems are still focused primarily on telephone-based hotlines, relying on someone making a conventional phone call to a call centre. The historical model is that someone dials a toll-free number and speaks to a call centre operative who can only speak to them in one of a limited number of languages. If the preferred language of the caller is not available immediately, then there is usually a process for engaging an interpreter in order to have a three-way conversation about the caller’s concerns.

This just does not feel like a simple or straightforward process likely to encourage an apprehensive whistleblower to persevere so I’m not surprised that there’s been a noticeable and sustained decline in phone-based reporting over the past few years. It seems to me that, if alternative methods were easily available, people would choose them.

Another interesting piece of research that I came across shows that penetration rates for mobile subscriptions in developing nations hit 98.7% at the end of 2017. On the surface this might be seen as a positive for hotline calling, but in my experience, many of the supposedly ‘toll free’ numbers are not, in fact, toll free when called from a mobile.

The global uptake of mobile subscriptions has, however, led to a rapid growth in the use of mobile apps in developing nations – which is a great opportunity for a more innovative approach to reporting concerns. Coupled with advances in voice recording and machine translation, the prevalence of mobile technology offers a genuine opportunity to rethink our approach to whistleblowing hotlines.

Time for a change?

There are lots reasons that employees don’t report concerns. Some are cultural and to do with fear of retaliation, confidentiality, local cultural norms relating to hierarchy and obedience etc. But some are technical and linguistic .

If we are interested in doing more than simply ticking the box to say we have a whistleblowing solution in place, then we need to make it genuinely easy for employees to report concerns – especially in the riskiest parts of our business. That means taking advantage of the technology they do have and making it easy for them to say what they want quickly, easily and in their own language. So, does this mean that the traditional approach needs a re-think?

If you’re thinking about reviewing your current whistleblowing arrangements, or implementing a system for the first time, download our whitepaper that explains the four key steps to an effective whistleblowing system.

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