Whistleblowing with Wim: 4 rules for a healthy speak up culture

November 8, 2023
Wim Vandekerckhove shares tips on creating a healthy speak up culture

We recently spoke to Wim Vandekerckhove about his thoughts on the challenges that most organisations face when trying to build a better culture, and whistleblowing in general. He shared his insights on common misperceptions about what whistleblowing entails, and how to create a healthy speak up culture within an organisation. 

Wim Vandekerckhove is Professor of Business Ethics at EDHEC Business School in France. He holds a PhD from Ghent University. Before joining EDHEC, he held a lecturer post at Ghent University (Belgium), visiting scholarships at the University of Oslo (Norway), Griffith University (Australia), the International Anti-Corruption Academy (Austria), and was Professor of Business Ethics at the University of Greenwich (UK). Wim has provided expertise on whistleblowing to various organisations, including Council of Europe, UNODC, the International Olympic Committee, Transparency International, the UK Department of Health, and the British Standards Institute (BSI). He was the convenor for ISO37002, the international standard for whistleblowing management systems.

In this post, we are launching our Whistleblowing with Wim content series by sharing four bits of advice on what it takes to build a healthy speak up culture within your organisation.

Rule one: Keep it simple. Focus on pivotal changes first.

The first change organisations can make—one that is vital—is learning how to embrace whistleblowing, rather than fearing it.

“There’s a common myth around whistleblowing and speaking up”, said Wim. “First, that whistleblowing channels will be abused. Second, that the report has suspicious motives. These things create a negative mindset. Many organisations think ‘Sure, we need to protect whistleblowers, but they need to be real whistleblowers.’ This mindset leads to a culture of silence.”

What many organisations find is that once they accept reporters as a way of doing business, and protecting company interests, reporters offer valuable information on what works, and what doesn’t. Creating a culture which values reporters and their contributions won’t happen overnight. Organisations should start where they’re comfortable and keep reviewing and improving processes along the way.

Rule two: Trustworthiness can help you steer a healthy speak up program.

Wim teaches that being trustworthy is a pillar of correct business ethics. Building trust is not only relevant in adhering to CSR frameworks, but it’s a vital element of a healthy company culture.

“A company needs to be trustworthy to its external stakeholders,” he said. “That’s a given. But it’s also important to make sure that trustworthiness translates internally as well.”

Trustworthiness is the number one cure for toxic cultures because trust is a universal concept.

“It is something that everyone understands and wants to practice, but it’s not all black and white.”

Unless you understand trust and its different dimensions, becoming more trustworthy will be a challenge.

“Openness is one of the ways to become more trustworthy, but it’s not the only one. ‘What are some other dimensions of trust and how can we improve on all of them?’ Build that into your speak up channels and policies for a culture that everyone can get behind.”

Rule three: Worry about how to responsibly handle the reports, not the reporter.

According to Wim, the first thing organisations need to understand is that whistleblowing and the whistleblower are not often the things that need solving.

“Although most researchers focus on the whistleblowing or whistleblower ‘problem’,” said Wim, “I’ve always focused my research on the recipient side of things. Specifically, how do organisations respond to a report? In reality, if something goes wrong, it usually goes wrong with the handling of the case.”

The simplest way to make sure reports are being made openly, and a case is handled properly, begins with the first contact with the reporter.

”Create one reporting channel for all kinds of reports,” recommends Wim. “Creating a specific channel just for fraud, for example, may deter reporters from making a report on something unseen, or never considered.”

This means being open about anything a reporter might bring to the table and offer as few hurdles as possible.

“It’s best not to ask whistleblowers unnecessary questions before they raise their concern,” recommends Wim. It’s about finding that sweet spot which allows you to collect enough information from the reporter without scaring them away.

Finally, rule four: Company cultures differ, and speaking up is harder in certain situations.

All organisations are different, and whether a potential reporter feels comfortable making a report can be highly situational.

“I was recently working with the Olympic Committee on whistleblowing standards. I was surprised to see that for many of the young athletes within the organisation, those most likely to need to make a report, there’s a lot of cultural pressure not to. They’ve worked all their teenage years to meet this peak moment of athleticism, and they have short careers. Often, they want to go into sports management after athletics. So, there’s a trade-off to overcome in terms of reporting.”

This trade-off is always present, but it’s almost never the same. Sometimes, what works in a bank, or a big NGO, won’t work for others. Finding what the specific barriers towards making a report within your organisation might be takes more than simply following standard rules. At the same time, doing so is essential.

Stay tuned for more insights from Wim.

This is only part one of our Whistleblowing with Wim content series. If you're keen on collecting all of Wim's insights, make sure to stay in the loop by subscribing to our newsletter.


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