Corporate scandals and government fraud have become popular subjects for news outlets for years. It seems like every week, another scam comes to light because someone becomes too greedy. For this reason, whistleblowing laws were formed in the UK and USA that are designed to give employees a voice when they witness illegal, dishonest, or otherwise unethical business practices that defraud another. The Society of Human Resource Management defines these activities as, “violations of federal, state or local laws.” Examples could include charging customers for goods and services not provided, fraudulent financial reports, or stealing money from employee benefit program accounts to pay for other expenses.
Contrary to some ideas, whistleblower laws don’t protect the organization; they protect employees from retaliation by organizations and grants them the right to full confidentiality.
The US and UK whistleblowing laws
In the UK, whistleblowing laws can also extend to things that happen outside of work that could impact the general public. For example, a protected worker must have a way to report:
- The imminent threat to someone’s health or safety
- A serious criminal offence that has gone unreported to the police
- Miscarriage of justice or a legal or financial cover-up
- Risk or damage to the environment or community
- Company not carrying insurance
Some items do not warrant whistleblowing, but can still be reported to a member of the human resource team or under the current workplace grievance policy in place. These can be things like harassment, bullying, or discrimination. The exception to this is if it could potentially harm others.
In the USA, things can be a bit more complex, because there are certain things that are more critical to report than others and these claims are handled by separate government agencies. These are the general rules under US whistleblowing:
Safety and environmental hazards should be reported to a member of management, and if nothing has been corrected in a reasonable amount of time, employees have a right and the responsibility to report violations to the Occupational Safety Health Administration (OSHA). In the case of public environmental concerns employees also have the right to report to the Environmental Protection Agency in their region. In cases of on the job discrimination, employees in the US can report this to the EEOC.
The use of anonymous messaging platforms for whistleblowing complaints
Organizations that utilize real-time employee engagement systems for gathering feedback from employees may encounter cases when an employee chooses to use this method to report a possible event that’s covered under whistleblower rules. This can be both a good thing because it can prevent an organization from being accused of wrongdoing. It can give the company leadership an opportunity to investigate any claims and then respond to the employee, while maintaining the privacy of the employee. From a corporate responsibility standpoint, this can be a good way to reduce risk.
On the other hand, if the employee engagement system does not provide identity masking for employees, this can be a risk for retaliation from the person reading it on the other end. Or worse yet, if there is a serious accusation about a member of the executive team that could cause damage to the company as a whole. This may be a matter that is best left for a third-party legal firm to sort out. However, knowing what the problems are in advance can stop a PR nightmare in it’s tracks.
Creating policy for managing internal communications
When using an employee engagement system, it is very important to have a written whistleblower policy in place that all members of the human resource and management team understand and agree to. This policy should include how to protect the identity of the employee, who gets the messages from employees, when to escalate the message to the next level, and how to respond to employees. At the same time, a written policy needs to be in place that details what constitutes an actual whistleblowing event and who to contact. This can be included in the employee manual.
Additionally, there should be an investigative process that involves human resources and a third-party that is impartial and familiar with dealing with whistleblowing claims. If a report is made, the employer must cooperate with the investigation by the governing agency, but having corporate documentation can also support the goals of the business.
It is a general rule that employees are responsible for reporting concerns, not employers. However, if a member of the human resource team is the employee who notices the problem, then he or she would be the person to report the problem. Remember to review the rules around whistleblowing with your proper government agency and call in advance if you have any questions about this process.
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