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Wednesday
Dec092015

Philippa Foster Back: What stops employees from blowing the whistle?

Effective speak-up or whistleblowing hotlines are an element of good governance and can act as an early warning system. But while most large companies have a formal mechanism where employees can voice concerns, our 2015 Ethics at Work survey shows that employees don't have confidence in the system.

The Institute of Business Ethics has conducted a triennial survey into employees’ views of ethics at work in Britain since 2005. The IBE widened the survey in 2012 to include France, Germany, Italy and Spain, giving additional insights into ethics at work in continental Europe.

The 2015 survey reveals that, although employees are now more aware of elements of an ethics program, nearly half of British employees (45 percent) aren't willing to raise their concerns about misconduct. Of those that did speak up, 61 percent said they were dissatisfied with what happened next (compared with 30% in 2012).

Across continental Europe, the picture is equally pessimistic: fewer of those aware of misconduct raised their concerns (down to 44 percent from 51 percent in 2012).

Among those aware of misconduct, the most common reason across continental Europe for not raising concerns is "not believing that corrective action would be taken" (26 percent).

The two most prominent reasons given why British employees did not raise their concerns of misconduct in 2015 are: feeling that it may jeopardise their job and not believing that corrective action would be taken.

No British respondents said that they did not know who to contact.

The majority of British respondents are now not satisfied with the outcome when they raise their concerns of misconduct. This appears especially to be the case for women, younger employees, and employees in organisations with an unsupportive ethical culture where 71 percent, 79 percent, and 97 percent respectively said that they were not satisfied with the outcome.

This may simply be a communication issue -- the outcome of investigations is not fully communicated to the employee who made the call -- but it has a serious side effect. The result is a lack of confidence in the system, and mounting distrust in what the company says versus what it does.

Employees take away the message that the motivational poster urging them to speak up is just window dressing, and this breeds cynicism, not just in the speak up process, but in the ethical values of the organisation itself.

If organizations have the courage to be open about the outcomes of raising ethical concerns, this can help give staff the confidence to share their concerns with each other and with the company. It is time to recast the whistleblower as a hero -- working for the good of the company, of colleagues and customers -- and to be proud of those who have the moral courage to raise their concerns.

The 2015 IBE Ethics at Work survey is available here. Open the "View Description" button and click "download" 

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Philippa Foster Back CBE is the Director of the Institute of Business Ethics. She sits on the board of the Chartered Institute for Securities and Investment (CISI) and on the advisory board of RAND Europe. She's a Visiting Fellow of the Said Business School at Oxford University. London-based IBE is a registered charity that promotes high standards of business practice based on ethical values.