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Whistleblower Series: The workplace whistleblower program – friend or foe?

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What seems like a really long time ago, I wrote in one of my blogs that I would be doing a series on whistleblowing. It seemed like a great idea at the time: there isn’t that much practical information about whistleblowing out there and I have a lot to share on the topic given that I have done work in this field for many years. But then, a pandemic happened, and my “series” didn’t quite get off the ground. I’ve come back to the topic, though, as I’ve been fielding some questions about it lately.

In my first blog on the topic, I gave a high-level overview of workplace whistleblowing in Canada. Amongst other things, I wrote about entities that choose to establish internal whistleblower programs, even when not required by law to do so. In this blog, I examine why these programs can be beneficial and some of the potential drawbacks.

First, some context about what a “whistleblower program” is.  A whistleblower program is essentially a mechanism that allows employees (and sometimes others) to report wrongdoing confidentially. Usually, it involves having a whistleblower policy in place, an established reporting channel for whistleblowers, and dedicated staff to receive and investigate reports from whistleblowers. The program is usually meant to uncover wrongdoing other than what is typically reported to human resources (for example, a complaint of harassment by one employee against another).

There are many reasons why it is a good idea to have a whistleblower program in place:

    • It sends the message to employees that the entity takes compliance issues seriously and that it cares about doing the right thing.
    • It’s a good governance tool as it may help to uncover wrongdoing within the organization.
    • It potentially avoids an employee using another channel to report their concerns. For example, without an internal reporting channel, an employee may seek to disclose their concerns to the media, a regulator, or through social media.
    • It puts in place a set process for handling whistleblower reports. This is important for two reasons. First, it avoids the organization having to “scramble” when they receive a whistleblower report. Second, it reduces the likelihood that a whistleblower communication will be lost or ignored (for example, if an email is sent to the entity’s general inquiries email address).
    • It can establish protections for whistleblowers (such as protections from reprisal), which may in turn encourage employees to come forward. Without these protections, employees may not want to disclose wrongdoing when they witness it.

Like with anything else, however, there are some potential challenges to having a whistleblower program:

    • It needs to be resourced properly, with individuals who know how to do the intake of whistleblower reports and conduct investigations. This is often challenging because the volume of work is unpredictable – there are busy weeks, and then there are weeks in which nothing happens.
    • The whistleblower program can be a little bit of a “catch all” in that employees may use it to raise relatively minor concerns or concerns that should be reported elsewhere. This can tie up resources unnecessarily.
    • Concerns reported through a whistleblower program can often be light on details, which can make them more difficult, or even impossible, to investigate.

Overall, I definitely think that the good outweighs the bad here. If there is wrongdoing in the organization, it’s simply better to know about it and address it early. While the program may be used by employees for more minor issues, this is a small price to pay to uncover serious wrongdoing. An effective whistleblower policy can be used to mitigate against some of the challenges that I’ve identified. This will be the topic of my next blog (provided that no new global crisis prevents me from getting there).

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