New Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) rules came into effect on 7 March 2016 to govern how companies in the sector should support and facilitate whistleblowing by their employees and customers (as well as those who work for their competitors).   This is the latest example in a growing trend in which organisations are formalising support for whistleblowing.

The new FCA code means that organisations are required to put in place a variety of processes to facilitate whistleblowing.  They should, for example, set up systems to protect the confidentiality of whistleblowers and prevent victimisation; they should track the outcome of whistleblowing reports and provide feedback to the whistleblowers; and they should also ensure UK-based employees are informed about the FCA’s whistleblowing services, and made aware that they can approach the regulator directly without discussing their concerns with their employer.

The growth of whistleblowing
Efforts to encourage whistleblowing have become increasingly high profile over last few years. In 2015 retail giant Tesco was in the news when it launched a new code of conduct to make it easier for employees to blow the whistle in the wake of the 2014 financial scandal in which the company’ first-half profits were overstated by around £250m.

In the public sector, the NHS’s much publicised Freedom to Speak up Review identified the difficulties of whistleblowing within the health service. It revealed examples of staff who were put off from reporting bad practice or issues relating to patient safety because they "fear victimisation" or feel they won't be listened to. It quotes stories of employees facing isolation, bullying and counter-allegations after they had reported unacceptable behaviour by other staff.

All of this is part of a growing trend which sees organisations getting serious about creating an environment in which staff feel safe and comfortable ‘blowing the whistle’ on fellow employees or corporate processes they suspect of wrongdoing.

So how can companies ensure that they have a culture where employees are happy and supported when sharing concerns? There are four areas to focus on:

1. Create a culture where staff are empowered to raise concerns
Obviously the ideal solution would be to ensure your organisation avoids unethical or illegal behaviour altogether so that there is no reason to blow the whistle at all. But the next best thing would be to focus on creating a culture where staff feel able to put their hand up and report any concerns they have about the behaviour of other individuals, whether they are other employees or management.

If people do not feel supported or able to speak up there are two likely consequences

2. Appoint an independent champion
Staff may feel uncomfortable talking to a manager within the company, so it makes sense to have someone independent they can approach if they have concerns they want to discuss.  This could be an external lawyer for example. Interestingly, the FCA’s rules require firms to appoint a senior manager (who must be non-executive director) to act as a “whistleblowers’ champion”. This individual must oversee all whistleblowing policies and procedures, and present an annual report to the board about this area (as well as making the report available to the regulator).

3. Make whistleblowing support visible
Make sure the company is very openly supportive of whistleblowing so that it is seen as part of the organisation’s culture. There are a variety of steps that can help, including:

This sort of openness can send out a clear message to staff that activities such as fraud, breaches of industry regulations, bullying and discrimination won't be tolerated.

4. Put in place systems to make it easy and anonymous
It can be difficult for employees to report their concerns anonymously while at the same time ensuring they provide sufficient detail (because they worry that providing too much information might give away their identity). Online survey and feedback collection technology is now emerging as a solution for this challenge.

In one example, a government department of a Scandinavian country is using a modified version of Questback’s employee feedback tool, adapted to allow staff to schedule an online chat conversation with a moderator to report their concerns. They can select full anonymity for the chat session, with their IP address masked so comments cannot be traced back to their computer. The system includes a secure facility that allows people to upload documents anonymously to support the issue they are reporting.

Developing formal structures and processes for supporting whistleblowing is fast becoming standard practice in many industries, with the FCA’s new whistleblowing regime just the latest example. It makes sense for all companies to make it easier for employees to blow the whistle if they want to stop unethical behaviour and protect their business from potential prosecution and damaged reputation. A willingness to support whistleblowing is also an important part of creating an open culture in which staff feel secure in speaking up, contributing to employee engagement and retention. Therefore, whatever sector you are in, now is the time to review policies and ensure you are giving whistleblowers the support and encouragement they require.