Is Your Complaints Procedure Effective?

Risk management is an important aspect of running a successful business: Whether this takes the form of ensuring compliance with corporate governance programs, reducing instances of workplace fraud or financial misconduct, or eliminating bullying or other forms of harassment. 

Having a strong and coherent whistleblower program in place can help protect your organisation's interests in all of these situations. 

An ineffective complaints system could in fact be preventing your employees from raising any complaints. 

So what are the hallmarks of an effective whistleblower program?

Provide Confidentiality and Support

An effective complaints system should enable your business to identify hotspots, respond to critical incidents and communicate confidentially with reporters. It should also provide employees with a safe and secure environment to report misconduct, enable insightful management and the ability to bring about real cultural change, and reduce corporate risk. 

Perhaps the most crucial component of a successful complaints system is that complainants are guaranteed confidentiality and employer support throughout the whole process. This is particularly important as those who are considering blowing the whistle on co-workers or supervisors may be concerned about reprisals or the potential impact on their employment. 

This is especially likely to be the case in circumstances where the reported conduct involves sexual harassment, workplace bullying or criminal behaviour, such as fraud or theft. Employees considering making a complaint should be offered the opportunity to make anonymous complaints to reduce the fear of retaliation. 

The following statistic are particularly insightful: 

  • A third  of all reports made through whistleblower programs relate to bullying and harassment
  • 67% of people experiencing bullying or harassment do not report it
  • 42% do not report it for fear of negative consequences
  • 49% of misconduct is reported by employees. 

Establish Clear Procedures and Guidelines

It is crucial that reporting systems in your workplace are clearly identified and communicated to all staff. This includes making it clear to all employees how a complaint should be made (including an anonymous complaint), to whom, and what the follow-up process will be once a complaint has been lodged. 

This information should be readily available and easily accessible. 

Don't Make Empty Promises

Once a whistleblower program is in place in your business, it is important for those utilising the service to feel that their complaints are being taken seriously and will be dealt with and responded to in an appropriate fashion.  

Privacy concerns and operational strategies may mean that complainants are not privy to all aspects of any ultimate disciplinary or punitive processes imposed on those against whom complaints are sustained. It is nonetheless important to confirm with the complainant that it has been duly and independently investigated, and that it has been resolved to the business' satisfaction.

Crack Down on Reprisals

It is equally important for your organisation to have a strong and transparent policy to deal with reprisals or victimisation of whistleblowers. In some circumstances, even if confidentially is offered, only a little bit of logic may be required to deduce who made a complaint against another staff member. This maybe particularly relevant if your business is small or if the circumstances surrounding an allegation involve only a few people with detailed knowledge of the facts. 

If anyone involved seeks to retaliate either physically, verbally or by affecting the whistleblower's employment, it is crucial for your organisation to demonstrate a swift and clear zero-tolerance response.  

Implementing a Program Can Be Challenging

Ensuring easy communication and the ability for staff to raise complaints where necessary, benefits all employees by improving an organisation's ability to deal with risks and increasing employee satisfaction. 

However, implementing an effective whistleblower program can be difficult, particularly in a smaller business with limited resources. It can also be a complicated task to provide a program that responds quickly and is impartial. 

At WISE Workplace, we offer an independent whistleblower hotline program that is ready to take complaints 24/7, provide assessments on the urgency of complaints, and offer expert advice on the dealing with complaints. Contact us to find out more.   

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Comment by Bernard Keith Althofer on July 10, 2017 at 9:39

Some organisations may have a well documented policy and procedure that has been designed to facilitate the reporting of official misconduct, misconduct or breaches of discipline.  The same organisations may have conducted inhouse training e.g. face to face, self paced learning packages or on line training and yet individuals may have little to no confidence or faith that what they report will be treated confidentially.

It does seem that in some cases, the workplace culture is such that individuals who need to access whistleblower programs may be reluctant to do so if they believe (generally on reasonable grounds) that their identity will be known to all and sundry in the organisation. As some have indicated to me, once it became known that they were a whistleblower, they became the target, despite a zero tolerance approach being written into policy.

In some cases, a workplace policy may not fully explain how various policies and procedures and support mechanisms are either designed or work together.  For example, an organisation may have a workplace bullying policy that for one reason or another is not linked to the whistleblower program.  It is for many targets and others wanting to access whistleblower program, a risky endeavour.  In some cases, an individual may have reported bullying behaviours and as part of the resolution process be transferred to another Government Department only to have their new manager greet them with "So you are the trouble maker we have been told about".

In other situations that I have been made aware of, individuals have expressed concerns about the individuals actually working in the whistleblower program.  Their concerns have indicated a lack of confidence that their complaint will be treated confidentially; that their identity will be made known; or that they will be the target.  In the past, I have been made of a number of cases where the individuals concerns have eventuated. In one case, I was approached by a senior manager who indicated "We know that a whistleblower and that they have been in contact with you.  We are going to get them when they return to work." In this particular case, I had not spoken to the person nominated but I was aware that they were off work due to bullying (breaches of confidentiality on the part of several persons including the person on sick leave).  After providing some cautionary advice that I would have to give evidence if required, the conversation terminated.

With the advent of the Bribery and Corruption legislation and changes that may bring in relation to incentives for whistleblowers, there needs to be greater face to face discussion during workplace training so that all individuals gain a deeper appreciation of the implications involved.  The Whistle While They Work Project being conducted through Griffith University has provided a deeper understanding of the issues that people do and don't report.  Organisations need to be aware of these types of projects so they can identify and address any organisational barriers that prevent or reduce the reporting of all forms of counterproductive behaviours.

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