The Japanese pictorial maxim of three wise monkeys (each covering their eyes, ears or mouth) embodies the proverbial principle of "see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil." There are various meanings ascribed to the monkeys and the proverb, but the phrase is most often used to refer to those who deal with impropriety by turning a blind eye. Fortunately, people increasingly wish to speak out when they see or hear of wrongdoing, and organizations not only should want to help them but must help them.
At the same time, the COVID-19 pandemic introduces new challenges for organizations looking to build and maintain a robust integrity framework including their whistleblowing infrastructure. Policies and procedures need to be reviewed through the lens of an increasingly dispersed and remote workforce. Nine in ten respondents to the EY Global Integrity Report 2020 (pdf) Is this the moment of truth for corporate integrity? believe that the pandemic poses an increased risk to ethical business conduct at their organization.
With the realization that the global pandemic and its impact will be felt for the foreseeable future, organizations need to do more to locate and stop unethical behavior, and also to protect those that help do so.
Whistleblowers – employees who expose behavior inside their own organization – play a crucial role in uncovering misconduct. This is just one reason why policies to protect whistleblowing have migrated out of obscurity to near the top of the agenda for many senior legal and compliance professionals. What was once worthy of a fleeting mention as part of a wider discussion around integrity, is increasingly a central concern for businesses, both large and small.
These concerns are coming from inside and outside of organizations, with both employee expectations rising and new legal mandates coming into force. Governments in Europe are in the process of implementing legislation that requires companies to offer increased levels of protection to workers including those in highly regulated industry sectors, such as financial services and healthcare.
As more laws come into place, organizations need to create effective and workable policies around building integrity, and specifically look at whistleblowing. Some progress is being made, but it is not always holistically or even consistently applied.
Data collected for the EY Global Integrity Report 2020 (pdf) found that the vast majority respondents – 94% of the nearly 3,000 companies surveyed – had at least one element of a robust whistleblowing procedure in place. The most common was a code of conduct for how employees should behave in business (47%), followed by regular training on relevant legal, regulatory or professional standards of behavior (38%).
At a macro level, 39% of those surveyed said it had become easier to report concerns over the past three years. Despite this, one in five respondents is more concerned about the level of protection for whistleblowers than they were three years ago with less than one third (27%) believing that they are offered more protection.
Organizations need to understand this entire process – a policy alone is not enough. With whistleblowing laws and rules becoming increasingly widespread, corporations around the world need to build and enhance their current procedures.