The elements of an effective whistleblower program have been the subject of much review. Studies and recognition of the value of Australian Corporate Governance Standards has provided templates for consideration. The review of the Australian Public Sector by Griffiths University provides valuable insight.
1. Organisational commitment
- Clear statements by senior management of the organisation’s support for the reporting of wrongdoing through appropriate channels.
- Senior management commitment that a credible investigation will follow the receipt of a whistleblowing report, that any confirmed wrongdoing will be remedied, and that whistleblowers will be supported.
- Commitment to the principle of whistleblowing among first-level and second-level managers.
- Understanding of the benefits and importance of having whistleblowing mechanisms among first-level and second-level managers.
- Knowledge and confidence in policies among first-level and second-level managers.
Stopline Comment: We recognise the need to ensure a statement of commitment is made by senior management. Our “Whistleblower Communications & Promotions” resource kit provides structure and examples of how such a commitment can be made.
- Easy to comprehend whistleblower policy, including guidance on procedures, relation to other procedures, and legal obligations.
- Broad staff awareness of the whistleblowing program.
- Full staff confidence in management responsiveness to whistleblowing.
- Widespread staff awareness and acceptance of responsibility to report.
Stopline Comment: Our experience in the public, private and not-for-profit sectors allows us to assist with policy and procedure development. Stopline also provides direct awareness training.
- Staffing and financial resources dedicated to the implementation and maintenance of the program, commensurate with organisational size and needs.
- Specialised training for key personnel, and inclusion of whistleblower or disclosure management issues in general induction and management training.
Stopline Comment: The use of Stopline to manage your whistleblower hotline services eliminates the need to continually retrain staff who may move on to other assignments. A consistent, accessible resource with current expertise is invaluable in ensuring the whistleblower has confidence in your program.
- Regular evaluation and continual improvement in the program.
- Positive engagement on whistleblowing issues with external integrity agencies, staff associations and client groups.
Stopline Comment: Detailed reporting of disclosures in a consistent manner and regular summaries provide a simple process for evaluation of issues. Our recognition as a specialist in the field has enabled Stopline to establish links with many of the relevant corporate governance and whistleblowing agencies.
2. Encouragement of reporting
- Clear identification of all key categories of organisation members (employees, contractors, employees of contractors, volunteers, at-risk clients) needing inclusion in the whistleblowing mechanism.
Stopline Comment: The capacity to address all key categories of the organisation and develop appropriate communication strategies is important. The ability to vertically integrate your program with suppliers and distributors has significant advantages.
- Clear advice on types of wrongdoing that should be reported.
- Clear advice on appropriate reporting points for all different types of wrongdoing (including grievances as opposed to public interest disclosures).
- Clear advice on level of information required/desired.
- Clear advice that staff are not protected from the consequences of their own wrongdoing by using the whistleblowing mechanism, nor for false or deliberately misleading information.
- Clear advice that staff can nevertheless seek and be granted immunity from consequences from their own less serious wrongdoing, when reporting more serious wrongdoing by others or by the organisation.
Stopline Comment: “Improper conduct” should include a broad range of issues. Limiting reporting by having a narrowly defined “improper conduct” will only reduce the information flow.
- Clear internal reporting paths and advice on to whom and how whistleblower or disclosure reports should be made, including alternatives to ‘up the line’ reporting.
- Clear external reporting paths, including external (contracted) hotlines and advise about relevant regulatory or integrity agencies.
- Clear guidance on when reporters should consider reporting outside the normal management chain, or outside the organisation.
- Clear advice regarding contact with the media.
Stopline Comment: Ease of reporting is important. Every whistleblower will have a different level of confidence regarding the confidentiality and perceived integrity of the process. The objective is to address the message irrespective of how one receives it.
- Clear advice that anonymous reports will be acted upon wherever possible, and as to how anonymous reports/approaches can be made.
- Commitment to the confidentiality of whistleblowing reports to the maximum extent possible, with clear advice about possible limits of confidentiality.
Stopline Comment: Anonymity is a “shield” not a “mask”. Anonymity is to some whistleblowers their ultimate form of protection from reprisal. Stopline provides a methodology by which anonymous whistleblowers can make confidential contact, assist investigations and receive feedback.
3. Assessment and investigation of reports
- A coordinated system for tracking all significant reports of wrongdoing (including grievances) at all levels of the organisation.
- Advice to supervisors on when, how and whom to notify about staff complaints and possible whistleblowing reports.
- Organisational procedure for early notification of external regulatory or integrity agencies about significant or higher-risk reports.
Stopline Comment: Identification and tracking of disclosures and the maintenance of a secure, confidential reporting process should be ensured.
- Skills and procedures for differentiating, as appropriate, between different types of wrongdoing (including grievances), and initiating appropriate investigations.
- Flexibility in the type, level and formality of investigation to be conducted, including clear criteria for when no further investigation is required.
- Early and continuing assessment of the risks of reprisal, workplace conflict or other adverse outcomes involving whistleblowers or other witnesses.
Stopline Comment: The “positioning” of a whistleblowing program should be a clear alternative to already established and well functioning processes such as OH&S. The capacity to assess disclosures at the point of receipt is very important. All disclosures made to Stopline at received by a trained investigator with extensive managerial experience.
- Procedures for maintaining the confidentiality of whistleblowers and other witnesses to the maximum extent possible.
- Procedures for consulting and, where possible, gaining consent of whistleblowers prior to action that could identify them, including to external agencies.
- Strategies for supporting employees and managing the workplace when confidentiality is not possible or cannot be maintained.
Stopline Comment: Confidentiality is paramount.
- Clear procedures for the protection of the rights of persons against whom allegations have been made.
- Appropriate sanctions against false or vexatious allegations.
- Clear advice to supervisors about to whom, when and by whom information about allegations need be given, for reasons such as natural justice.
Stopline Comment: Natural justice is important in ensuring the integrity of the process. Natural justice does not mean the respondent is immediately notified of a complaint. However, it must allow the respondent the opportunity to address any issues and make comment regarding any adverse findings.
4. Internal witness support and protection
- One or more designated officers with responsibility for establishing and coordinating a support strategy appropriate to each whistleblowing case.
- Proactive (as well as reactive) operation of the support strategy, i.e. management-initiated rather than simply complaint/concern-driven.
- Support arrangements tailored to identified risks of reprisal, workplace conflict or other adverse outcomes.
- Involvement of whistleblower in risk assessment and support decisions.
- Involvement of identified support person(s) (‘confidant’,’mentor’,’interview friend’ or similar) and negotiation of their role.
Stopline Comment: Having appropriate support is fundamental to a successful program. The support strategy should include welfare management which ideally is a separate function from that of Disclosure Coordinator.
- Provision of information, advice and feedback to internal witnesses on actions being taken in response to disclosure.
- Provision of information about how to manage their role in the investigation process, including whom and when to approach regarding issues or concerns.
- Access to appropriate professional support services (stress management, counselling, legal, independent career counselling).
- Information and advice regarding external regulatory or integrity agencies that can be accessed for support.
Stopline Comment: The capacity to provide feedback and direction, particularly for the anonymous whistleblower, is an aspect that requires particular attention. With nearly two out of three complainants seeking anonymity from their entity, the ability to ensure continuing dialogue is one of Stopline’s strengths.
- Clear commitment that the organisation will not undertake disciplinary or adverse actions, or tolerate reprisals including by managers, as a result of disclosures.
- Mechanisms for monitoring the welfare of organisation members who report wrongdoing, from the time of first report.
- Positive workplace decisions regarding prevention or containment of the risks of conflict and reprisal.
- Direct engagement of supervisors or alternative managers in support strategy and related workplace decisions, to the maximum extent possible.
- Clear authority for support personnel to involve higher authorities (CEO, audit committee and external agencies) in whistleblower management decisions.
- Specialist expertise (internal or external) for investigating alleged detrimental actions or failures in support, with automatic notification to external agencies.
- Flexible mechanisms for compensation or restitution where there is failure to provide adequate support, or prevent or contain adverse outcomes.
STOPline Comment: The commitment by management , the effectiveness of awareness training, the confidentiality of the reporting process and support available to those willing to come forward with reports of improper conduct, will be a sound platform to prevent and remedy detrimental action.
- Exit strategies for concluding organised support to whistleblowers.
- Follow-up monitoring of whistleblower welfare, as part of regular evaluation of program and to identify ongoing, unreported support needs.
5. An integrated organisational approach
- ‘Standing’, ‘Devolved’, ‘Case-By-Case’ support strategies.
- Clear understanding of whistleblowing related roles and responsibilities of key players, internal and external to the organisation.
- Operational separation of functions.
- Clear and direct lines of reporting from support personnel to the audit/integrity committee and/or CEO, and external agencies.
STOPline Comment: As with welfare management, investigations should be separated. It is important to recognise the skills sets necessary to undertake an internal investigation. The failure to protect evidence, adequately develop an investigation plan in response to the Investigations Terms of Reference or appoint a trained investigator could lead to an unsuccessful outcome.
- Clear lines of communication to ensure manager(s) retain responsibility for their workplace and workers to maximum extent possible.
- Clear lines of communication with external agencies re: incidence, nature and status of active cases.
- Integrated & coordinated procedures (not ‘layered’ or ‘alternative’).
- Integrated complaint/incident recording and management systems.
- Whistleblower support integrated into human resources, career development, workplace health & safety (WH&S) policies.
Stopline Comment: Whistleblower hotline services or disclosure programs are part of the entity’s corporate governance and risk management strategy. They should not replace other communication channels but rather support those which already exist.
1. “Whistling while they work…toward best practice whistling programs in public sector organisations”
Griffith University July 2009
2. Australian Standard AS 8004- 2003 “Whistleblower protection programs for entities”