Protecting Whistleblowers

“Guidance for how willing participants can implement a robust anti-retaliation program”—that’s how the chair of the Best Practices and Corporate Culture work group of OSHA’s Whistleblower Protection Advisory Committee (described in this Ethical Advocate blog post) characterized a recently published set of recommendations titled Best Practices for Protecting Whistleblowers and Preventing and Addressing Retaliation. These best practices are relevant across industries and sectors, and can be adapted for use by organizations of any size.

As discussed in the report, there are six key elements to an effective whistleblower anti-retaliation system. The report provides detailed guidance for each of these elements, with a combination of checklists and “do’s and don’ts” tables, well worth reading.  The following is a summary of each section:

Leadership commitment

Chief executives and boards of directors must take the lead in implementing a whistleblower-protection and anti-retaliation system … There are business leaders whose experience shows that organizational effectiveness and profitability improve when these whistleblower protection actions are put in place. To gain these benefits, organizations need to move from defense and reaction to proactive programs to hear and resolve issues and to otherwise prevent retaliation.

A true “speak up”organizational culture

The seeds of retaliation are planted when employee issues are unwelcome or go unaddressed.  Therefore, employers should foster a “speak up” culture that encourages reporting, provides for fair evaluation, and for just and effective resolution of concerns.

Independent,protected resolution systems

An effective retaliation response system should include an independent complaint review process and an independent reporting line that can reach the employer’s board or oversight body, if necessary. The system must include clearly defined roles, responsibilities, and expectations for top leaders, board members, managers at all levels, employees, compliance and legal staff, and HR and labor relations staffs.

Specific training

Anti-retaliation skills are not intuitive. All leaders, managers, supervisors, and employees must receive training in what constitutes retaliation, legal protections available to employees, and how to prevent and address it, and management held accountable for implementing anti-retaliation policies.

Monitoring and measurements

Many common measurement and incentive systems used in organizations can actually encourage or mask retaliation. By encouraging low reported numbers of things like safety or financial fault incidents, low numbers for filed concerns or reports of retaliation, retaliation is at least implicitly encouraged in order to meet the numbers … Newer methods are being developed and adopted, and many companies have simply stopped incentives based on low volume of reporting issues, retaliation, and other problems.

Independent auditing

To ensure that their program is working effectively, employers should consider engaging independent evaluators or auditors whose assessments go beyond safety or financial systems audits, but which add depth or are complimentary to those.  Specific audits for employees’ willingness to report issues and about fears for retaliation are needed to really gauge whether or not there are lingering issues or fears of retaliation.

By using these programs and practices, the report concludes, an organization can better ensure the exercise of whistleblower rights and thereby gain the benefits that ensuring these rights can bring to the work place and the success of the organization.

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OSHA.Best Practices for Protecting Whistleblowers and Preventing and Addressing Retaliation, docket number OSHA-2014-0028-0018, posted August 14, 2015.!documentDetail;D=OSHA-2014-0028-0018