Whistleblowing is becoming a more standardized practice in workplaces around the world, but workplace culture is still deterring large numbers of employees from engaging in the practice, new research by law firm Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer has revealed.

Freshfields commissioned a survey of 2,500 middle and senior managers across the United States, the United Kingdom, Hong Kong, Germany, and France. The survey was conducted by Censuswide in September 2017 to analze business views on whistleblowing. The first half of the survey asked respondents to answer from their perspective as an employee, while the second half of the survey asked senior-level employees to answer from their perspective as an employers.

According to the survey’s findings, 47 percent of business managers are either witnessing or engaging in whistleblowing. This involvement in whistleblowing refers to business managers who have either engaged in whistleblowing themselves, seen a colleague whistleblowing, or received a whistleblowing report. This finding suggests a shift in behaviour since 2014, when Censuswide conducted a similar survey in partnership with Freshfields and only 34 percent reported the same level of engagement.

Similarly in the 2017 survey, only 13 percent of business managers now claim that their employers are discouraging whistleblowing. This contrasts with the 2014 survey, in which 40 percent of business managers reported that their employers were discouraging the practice.

Certain industry sectors and countries appear to be more engaged in the practice of whistleblowing than others. The latest data reveals that business managers in France and those working in the IT and telecoms sector are most likely to be involved in whistleblowing, with 56 percent and 63 percent, respectively, confirming past involvement in the practice. In 2017, managers in the United Kingdom and those working in the arts and culture sector are now the least likely to have been involved in whistleblowing, with 35 percent and 19 percent respectively confirming past involvement in the practice.

Whistleblower barriers

Despite increased levels of engagement in whistleblowing around the world, office culture is still deterring large numbers of business managers from engaging in it at all, the report found. Fifty-five percent of managers participating in the 2017 survey state that they and their co-workers would be deterred from whistleblowing by concerns that it would damage their career prospects or reputation; this is a particularly significant deterrent for business managers in Hong Kong (62 percent) and in the U.K. (58 percent).

A further 55 percent claim that they and their co-workers would be deterred from whistleblowing by concerns that their reports would not remain anonymous. This is of significant concern for business managers in the US (62 percent) and in the Healthcare sector (68 percent). Anonymity or a lack of anonymity is a recurring theme within the 2017 research, with over half of business managers (59 percent) claiming that it would be important for their organization to know the identity of a whistleblower.

“Whistleblowing can play a vital role in enabling businesses to regulate themselves and avoid misconduct,” said Caroline Stroud, global head of Freshfields’ people and reward practice and member of the firm’s global investigations group. “While it is encouraging to see that there has been a positive shift in attitudes towards whistleblowing in our latest survey, it is clear that there is some way to go before it is perceived to be a fully accepted part of workplace culture.”

“In order to tackle employee concerns around whistleblowing, businesses need to consider how they implement and follow whistleblowing policies and procedures, and crucially they need to explore how they embed the practice into their corporate culture,” Stroud added. “For a whistleblowing process to work effectively, employees and employers alike need to feel protected by the policies in place and to believe that they are being enforced and endorsed from the top of an organization down.”

“With an ever increasing focus on holding companies responsible for misconduct coupled with an enhanced desire to pursue charges against individuals, an effective whistleblowing process has never been a more valuable asset for businesses,” said Adam Siegel, Freshfields partner and co-head of its global investigations practice. “It can make the difference between learning about a problem when you still have the opportunity to address and remediate the situation and not discovering it until the regulator comes knocking on your door.” 

“For a whistleblowing process to work effectively, however, a company needs to ensure that it does more than read well, but is also properly implemented. Most importantly, employees need to believe that senior management actually wants them to avail themselves of the process and that raising good-faith concerns will be welcomed and rewarded,” Siegel added.