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Principal, Candido Consulting Group

If you’re a Canadian business owner or leader, the implications of the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica data scandal revealed by whistle-blower Christopher Wylie go beyond technology and data breaches to promoting and ensuring ethical conduct.

Have you given much thought to what role whistle-blowers can play in any organization? Every company – regardless of industry and size – should include a whistle-blower policy in its company documents.

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What is a whistle-blower policy?

A whistle-blower policy should guarantee the protection of an individual (employee, volunteer) who reports on an employer’s activities that are deemed to be illegal, unethical or dishonest. Its intent is to:

  • Prevent retaliation – any adverse employment action such as termination of employment, poor work assignments, shunning by co-workers and/or threats of physical harm.
  • Provide confidentiality – where possible. The identity of the whistle-blower is protected, but if the individual is required to testify or otherwise provide information in an investigation, their identity may be revealed.

These policies generally cover corruption and illegal, fraudulent or harmful activity that affects the public, or at least the company at large. But they don’t include personal situations between an individual and the organization such as workplace bullying or harassment, and individual disputes around compensation or mismanagement. These cases fall under provincial laws such as the Employment Standards Act (ESA), the Occupational Health and Safety Act or, in cases of environmental issues, the Environmental Protection Act. However, the ESA has very few teeth and prosecution is challenging. It can take years for cases to be heard and there’s very little enforcement of whether complainants actually get the awards.

Why companies should care

In addition to protecting employees, internal whistle-blower policies are also necessary to protect the employer through early detection of wrongdoing. The statement “our employees are our most valuable asset” is often seen as meaningless, designed as a public-relations gesture more than a true statement of worth. For those organizations that are serious about their values and have taken the time to create their culture and business ethics, it’s the logical next step. It shows that you’re so serious about ensuring that everyone is behaving in accordance with those values that you are providing a mechanism for employees to report something that contravenes them.

When employees believe they will be supported, they are more likely to report their concerns internally. When employees fear losing their job or feel that nothing will be done anyway if they speak to their employer, they might be more likely to go to social media instead.

Implementing a whistle-blower policy is also just good business. A values match is a key factor in whether organizations can attract and retain employees. Younger people, especially, have different priorities than previous generations and it has been widely reported that millennials are more concerned about corporate social responsibility and ethical business standards. Who they work for and what that company stands for is important, and they are quick to leave an employer whose values do not match their own. A whistle-blower policy serves to engender trust not only among potential applicants, but a business’s consumers and clients as well.

Putting policy in action

It’s important to remember that the work environment is not what the leadership says it is, it is what leadership does and how it behaves. It can be hard for a company to demonstrate a commitment to its policy unless something happens, but it can be reinforced by following some best practices.

  • Create a procedure: Don’t just write a bare minimum policy that says you support whistle-blowers. Define an actual procedure, set out clear steps and update the policy regularly.
  • Identify a point person: Provide employees with the name/position of the individual to whom they can report their concern. If the complaint is about the executive/leader, offer an alternative contact (usually the head of human resources or the chair of the board’s human-resources/compensation committee).
  • Communicate it: Talk about your policy and reinforce the company’s values in communications to employees, encouraging them to bring their concerns forward.

What’s required is a culture change, something that’s now seemingly being led by Mr. Wylie’s millennial generation, to mobilize both companies and government to meet international standards and truly protect their most valuable asset.

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