Andrew Leigh talks to CEO of Public Concern at Work, Cathy James.
Shooting the messenger has a long and hardly glamorous history. In business, the practice is alive and well, as companies struggle to turn their good intentions to run a responsible business into a reality.
Confusion often reigns about ways to get employees to be active in tackling serious ethical lapses—those potentially causing costly reputational damage and lethal financial penalties.
Achieving “ethically engaged” employees—people who voluntarily come forward to point out potential malpractices, is therefore the holy grail of the now fast-growing compliance industry.
Recently HSBC and J.P Morgan announced they were hiring thousands of new compliance staff. They were inadvertently admitting they don’t really know how to win genuine ethical engagement. Formal rules of compliance and countless support staff to ensure obedience to them are unlikely to improve employee ethical engagement.
If you don’t want to end up in exile in Moscow or its equivalent, as an employee you need to know speaking up about potential unethical behaviour in your company will note be a sure route to oblivion. Yet all too often speaking up is indeed severely career limiting. Shooting the messenger is alive and well in far too many places.
Unilever once created two independent phone lines to encourage employees in one subsidiary to report anonymously on any ethical lapses noticed during their work. Yet even though facing daily ethical dilemmas, virtually no one bothered to use these lines. Why?
Public Concern at Work is a charity dedicated to supporting whistleblowing and those who call time on irresponsible corporate and other forms of institutional misbehaviour. CEO Cathy James explains how she sees this tricky territory.
“There’s a drive in industry to say you can solve all these problems by giving people anonymous ways in which they can raise concerns. They assume people don’t have to trust you, and you don’t have to trust them. But we have to move away from that kind of language.
“If you’re saying to somebody: ‘we want you to tell us about things that are going wrong, you need to be saying to them we’ll protect your identity if you ask us, but we won’t tolerate victimisation and we won’t tolerate others behaving badly towards you and we’ll take you very seriously.”
“There’s a whole commercial hotline industry out there selling whistleblowing anonymously and it implies undermining trust. The Americans have some part to play in this, since their legislation is all around rewards that promote reporting anonymously. Yet, whistleblowing won’t work without trust.”
“Staff will not tell you things unless they trust you, simple as that. And how you gain that trust is to really to think hard about what policy messaging you use, how you train your staff, how the leadership talk about the issue, being open with external options and making sure it’s working in practice. Every couple of years you need to look at what’s happening through the whistleblowing process.”
“It doesn’t matter how open and transparent you are, or how often you say we want to know about ethical concerns, staff will often think twice about raising a concern which causes trouble for another, for a colleague. What’s really important is doing something when the concern is raised.”
“You constantly hear about how terrible it is for whistle blowers, but there’s lot of people in very good companies who see things all the time and get problems solved and its part of business as usual. It’s when information gets stuck that it goes wrong, or if there isn’t leadership on the issue or you’ve got leadership that isn’t listening and doesn’t want to know.
“What’s important is having a good process in which people can raise a concern with their line manager and there are escape routes, in case it’s the line manager where the problem is and senior people are trained how to handle this.
“Workers need constant reminding from the top that ethical behaviour is something the whole board supports. We help companies do that sort of communication. But quite often the message comes from a bit lower down, and that doesn’t actually give the confidence needed for the workforce to feel secure. It’s less effective when it comes from for example, HR or the Head of Compliance.”