DILEMMA: My friend has just had a nasty scare. Yet thanks to a brave whistleblower, she found out that her finance director was ripping her off before it killed the business. It made me wonder if someone would blow the whistle here. We certainly don't have any formal processes to help them. Should we set them up, and how would we do so?
ISSUES: This is a tough one. Not least because most leaders think they know what's going on. The suggestion that you might not is scary. At the same time, you don't want to encourage petty whingers or the pursuit of personal vendettas. And in a close-knit small team the challenge can be greater.
Before you reach for your Erin Brockovich video, think about what you would want people to blow the whistle about. Breaking the law, fiddling the books, risking health and safety or the environment are all obvious, damaging the business's reputation or unacceptable behaviour less so.
What kind of example do you set? The culture comes from the top and it's easier to deal with one bad apple if the company has a general atmosphere of high integrity, rigour and openness. Even with the right culture, a whistleblower may duck out, especially if his or her boss or a close colleague is implicated. It is a stressful thing to do.
Most businesses have someone who fulfils the conscience role and is respected by all. They often get to hear of trouble first. Who is it in your company and will they tell you?
How well do you know your people, their values, the financial or other pressure that they may be under? How good are your internal controls, particularly in the area of IT? A regular review is always worthwhile.
Should you have a formal process? If you are unionised or in a regulated industry you probably have one already. Most of the union web sites produce helpful guides to setting up a simple process, as does the DTI So it should be possible to establish something that's straightforward, trusted and fair.
- Focus on the critical things you need to know about.
- Check out what's been published to help you.
- Have a simple process led by someone the staff trust.
- Finally, bear in mind that if you give someone a whistle and encourage them to blow it, they may occasionally use it inappropriately, causing irritation to everyone else.
Patrick Dunne works with 3i.