There’s a mass of focus on whistleblowing right now. For firms falling under the scope of the Senior Managers Regime the concept of blowing the whistle has changed. This means increased accountability and responsibility for ensuring effective whistleblowing practices. The regulations are not hugely prescriptive and give a lot of room for firms to implement ‘effective whistleblowing practices’ as they see fit. Sounds easy? I’m not so sure it’s as simple as all that.

To start with, what do ‘effective whistleblowing practices’ look like? It’s likely that you already have a whistleblowing policy in place, possibly even an established confidential whistleblowing hotline. The temptation may therefore be to appoint a Whistleblowing Champion and continue operating as normal. But I don’t think this is enough. The key thing we have to do is change the face of whistleblowing. It has a dreadful reputation and there is still a lot of stigma attached to blowing the whistle- it’s still viewed by many as a ‘no go area’ or ‘career suicide’. We need to move away from that mentality and start viewing whistleblowing as a positive thing – after all it is an essential part of a firm’s ability to identify and deal with possible risks in a timely and sensible manner – we only have to look at recent scandals such as LIBOR and Forex to illustrate this point .

It’s clear then that escalating issues and concerns in the right way and at the right time is a good thing but people are only going to do that if they feel comfortable doing so. The golden thread of our behavioural work at byrne·dean for the last decade and a half has been to create an environment in which people who feel uncomfortable feel able to put their hands up.  To the person causing the problem, to anyone else in the organisation who they think may be able to help or to go ‘outside the box’.  Whistleblowing should be seen as part of that. A good internal resource and the right culture will obviate the need for external whistleblowing.

To expand on that thought further, someone recently said to me in a training session I was delivering that “if someone blows the whistle it means we have failed”. I hadn’t thought of it this way before, but I wholeheartedly agree. The escalation of concerns, problems etc. should be an organic process, a process in which people feel comfortable and able to approach the people around them to talk about this stuff. It must be seen as business as usual.  If bad things are happening, you want your people to think “I should say something”. Because it’s the right thing to do, because they feel that they are an accountable member of staff. If they can’t find the right person to speak to, then they should use the helpline (or perhaps in exceptional circumstances they could report outside of the firm although it is difficult to imagine what those exceptional circumstances would be if the internal stuff is working). This is all about creating the right culture.

This is where the role of the Whistleblowing Champion is critical. The Champion needs to do a culture change job. They will need to visibly promote responsible reporting and healthy escalation. They will need to regularly deliver positive messages, act as the culture carrier by setting the tone and role-model by taking ownership of and (for want of a better phrase!) championing everything whistleblowing related.  They must be the individual who will visibly push culture change in this area. They are going to need help from all managers/leaders – probably from everyone to do this, in order to truly  embed the right culture and remove the fear and stigma. But how can this be achieved on a day-to-day basis?

Coming back to my earlier message – it may feel tempting to view the whistleblowing changes from a policy / procedure perspective. But in my view there is so much more that can be done – and all for positive reasons. Now is the time to begin the process of driving culture change in order to step away from our traditional views of whistleblowing, to step away from a process-driven way of thinking so that we can create workplaces that feel safe, that allow people to challenge in the right way, to set the right culture and be truly accountable for everything that we do. Ultimately this is about doing the right thing and managing risk responsibly. It’s about embracing the positive messages and leaving the stigma behind.