Handle with care when concerns are flagged up
We continue our weekly series from Grant Thornton with a look at how best to respond to whistle-blowing
In recent years, whistleblowing hasn't been far from headlines across the globe. Names which have become synonymous with leaked documents and whistle-blowing at the highest level are Edward Snowden, who was widely reported to have leaked classified National Security Agency documents, Emma O'Reilly - who spoke out about the use of performance-enhancing drugs by professional cyclists - and Sean Hoare, who released information on business practices at the News of the World.
Closer to home, cases of whistle-blowing within the health service and elsewhere across the public sector have also been widely covered by the media.
As a result, you will be extremely aware of what a whistle-blower is, but are you or your business ready to recognise, protect and respond to whistle-blowing?
One thing Snowden, O'Reilly and Hoare have in common is that they worked within the areas they are accused of leaking information from. It is therefore often employees who are in a position to observe misconduct.
For shareholders, directors and senior stakeholders in the private or public sector, who may ultimately carry responsibility for misconduct within the ranks, it is essential that procedures are in place to encourage employees to speak up without fear of reprisal for voicing their concerns.
Whilst only workers will be protected under the current whistle-blowing legislation (the Public Interest Disclosure (NI) Order 1998), problems may also be uncovered by customers, users or suppliers. Provisions for these stakeholders to raise their concerns with the right person must therefore be made.
Whistle-blowers do not have to give their name but, whether they do or don't, the information they provide or the investigation that follows may identify the individual. Knowing the identity of the whistle-blower can help open and honest discussions, which may shape the direction of any investigation.
However, in cases where a whistle-blower wishes to remain anonymous, many would question that, if the allegations are true, the whistle-blower wouldn't be ashamed to put their name to the concerns.
Whilst being mindful of malicious or revengeful whistle-blowers, whistle-blowing reports of any kind (anonymous or otherwise) need to be taken very seriously. It is up to those receiving complaints and deciding a course of action to think carefully about any prejudices which may inadvertently affect their decisions.
Deciding to investigate starts with considering the concern and applying a degree of professional scepticism. No-one wants to believe their colleagues have been involved in wrong-doing, but that doesn't mean they are incapable of improper behaviour - inadvertent or otherwise.
Documenting the rationale for any decision is important as, whilst there is currently no legal requirement to investigate, there may be reputational issues to consider if you do not. Particularly if the allegations turn out to be true.
A clearly documented thought process may be the only defence to allegations of a cover-up.
If you do decide to investigate, defining your scope and identifying a detached investigator are the next important steps to consider.
It has been known for investigations to be overturned because evidence was improperly gathered or overlooked, therefore an independent, objective and appropriately skilled investigator will need to be carefully selected.
For further information or advice on developing whistle-blowing policies, Kim McCourt can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Grant Thornton NI also specialises in audit, tax and advisory