When managing a best practice whistleblowing program, it is essential to understand the positive long-term influence it has on organisational culture.

Astute leaders rely on the program to demonstrate the organisation’s ongoing commitment to integrity and allowing stakeholders to speak up.

To explore this relationship further and discover practical tips to managing a best practice program, Your Call’s General Manager, Nathan Luker, speaks with Neville Tiffen (first published for Your Call’s 2016 client publication SpeakUp)

Mr Tiffen has a high level of experience with more than 30 years in the corporate governance and legal sectors. He was previously the Global Head of Compliance for Rio Tinto, which involved leading the global whistleblowing program and managing many complex cases. In addition, he has held numerous executive roles across Australia, the US and South America.

Today, Mr Tiffen is a specialist consultant and mentor in corporate governance, compliance and business integrity.

He holds notable positions as an independent member of the Victorian Department of Education Integrity Committee, member of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) Secretary-General’s high level advisory group on integrity and anti-corruption, and as a member of the World Economic Forum advisory panel.

YC: What originally led you to managing a global whistleblowing program?

When I became Global Head of Compliance at Rio Tinto, I had been with the Group for many years. The existence of the whistleblowing program was well known, but there were areas for improvement. Upon taking on the new role, I moved to take on management of the program and we put in considerable effort to make the improvements. Today, I use that experience as a consultant in advising organisations on culture, integrity and governance, including whistleblowing programs.

In your recent article* in Company Director magazine, you wrote that an organisation wanting a culture of integrity needs to create a speak up culture. Why?

Integrity is key to compliance. In fact, at Rio Tinto, I renamed the compliance program – the “integrity and compliance program”. If you achieve integrity, nearly always compliance will follow. I think the recent debates about corporate culture have highlighted the key role that integrity plays; there is evidence that indicates a company that acts with integrity has better returns and a competitive advantage – if nothing else, it can attract and retain the sort of people that will strive for that. You can’t have integrity in an organisation unless people are willing to raise their concerns and issues – hopefully this will be directly with management. The organisation can address matters early and work on those concerns. That way, organisations might avoid corporate crises erupting without notice.

Three factors are critical to integrity – first, tone at the top; secondly fairness across all levels of the company and thirdly openness in communication throughout the company – that is, a confidence to speak up.

What role does a whistleblowing program play in helping an organisation achieve a speak up culture?

It’s critical. Of course, you would prefer people to raise concerns directly with management. But, there will always be circumstances where people will be nervous about doing this. Importantly, the existence of the whistleblowing program sends a very strong message that management wants to know – this will be re-enforced if management really takes whistleblowing cases seriously – the word will spread. That in itself puts pressure on lower levels of management to listen to their team members and actively encourage concerns to be raised early. The program should have a name that encourages people to raise their concerns in a positive setting – “Speak Up” is often used, “Open Talk” is another name. Get away from the concept of dobbing. Similarly you shouldn’t refer to the cases as complaints. You’re asking the employees and possibly others to help the organisation – “please raise your concerns and issues”.

If an organisation has a high number of disclosures being received through its whistleblowing program, does this mean the organisation is unethical?

Not necessarily.  Statistics have to be treated very carefully.  Often, you look at the number of cases under the whistleblowing program per thousand of employees to give some benchmark.  A business with a high case rate under its whistleblowing program might show that its employees trusted how it handled its whistleblowing program; that would encourage high usage of the system. If a business is honest with itself, its management and board will know what the truth is.

If an organisation has a low number of disclosures being received through its whistleblowing program, does this mean the organisation is ethical? Should the program be removed?

Again, not necessarily.  A business with a low case rate might indicate that its employees felt comfortable in raising their concerns directly with management or it might indicate a place full of fear of reprisal.  But even if the business and its employees are very ethical, it should still have a whistleblowing program – there is always a risk of a bad apple in any barrel.  A whistleblowing program is a safety net for the business and its employees.

How can an organisation measure the success of its whistleblowing program?

To have a really objective basis, you need a properly framed survey of staff conducted in a manner in which they have full trust in the confidentiality of the survey. However, you can, if you are honest with yourself, find out in other ways – usually less formally and perhaps more subjectively. For instance, I conduct facilitated discussions with staff at middle and junior levels. They are a way to judge the awareness level about the integrity and compliance program and to gauge issues on the ground in implementing the program. I always raise the whistleblowing program. When I did them at Rio Tinto, I found that everyone was aware of the whistleblowing system but very few people knew much about it. Because of this, in many locations, staff did not trust the program and therefore would not use it. Some people thought it would be just the local business unit investigating itself – they did not know, for instance, that certain matters came directly to my desk to determine how they would be handled. Quite simply, we had not communicated about how matters were handled and we certainly had not communicated how many cases we had and if they resulted in any action. That was a lesson for me and something that we moved quickly to address.

Are whistleblowing programs only for large organisations, such as listed companies?

No, they are for every organisation – listed companies, private companies, SMEs, charitable organisations, educational institutions, sporting associations and clubs, governments and their agencies. They are essential for big organisations but they can serve a vital role for small organisations. Of course, there can be issues with how small organisations handle matters raised through whistleblowing programs but generally these can be worked out. If I were asked to be a director or board member of any organisation these days, one of the very first matters I would look at is how open is the organisation in raising issues and as part of that, does it have an effective whistleblowing program.

What are your top two factors that ensure a whistleblowing program is successful?

Let me say upfront, that I take anonymity and non-retaliation as givens. Of course, they must exist if the program is to be successful. But beyond that, the two top things would be strong leadership and interest from the board, CEO and executive management. This reinforces that they are serious about the whistleblowing program. In turn, middle management will then be serious about addressing issues and the staff will use the program. Secondly, communicate – not just the publicity about the program, the posters etc. Report to the staff about how many cases, what sort of cases, how many resulted in action. Don’t be afraid of your own staff.

What are the top two common mistakes organisations make when operating a whistleblowing program?

Of course, if a company is paying only lip service to its whistleblowing program, it won’t be successful and that is probably what its management wants. But even where a company really wants the program to be successful, a common mistake is not engaging with somebody who has actually designed and implemented a successful whistleblowing program in practice. Generally, they will be people with international experience, as overseas companies have far more experience than Australian organisations which are only moving into this space now. Another common mistake is looking too narrowly at issues raised in the whistleblowing cases – don’t just examine the case, respond and close the file – think: why was the case not raised with management directly (if that is indeed what happened); is this the tip of the iceberg; is there perhaps more to this than meets the eye; if it is happening there, could it be happening elsewhere; even if the case is not substantiated, are there lessons from it; are there trends in the cases. Take all of that and improve your integrity and compliance efforts if needed, including internal controls, training and communication.

“Whistleblowing programs are for every organisation… They are essential for big organisations but they can serve a vital role for small organisations.”

Read Neville’s AICD article here.

Sign up to Your Call’s newsletter for similar articles or contact the team to learn more about the service.