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Odds are increasing organizations will deal with a whistleblower complaint. Instead of bowing your neck and gritting your teeth, welcome a whistleblower complaint as a good thing, according to an article published by the Harvard Business Review and republished by the Portland Business Journal.

George Washington University Professor Kyle Welch and University of Utah Professor Stephen Stubben wrote, “On the surface, most people would assume that more issues being reported is a negative sign, but we found that a higher number of internal reports reflected a company culture in which employees trust managers, rather than one with frequent conflict between workers. All companies have their share of concerns, but not all companies have a culture where employees feel secure and valued when sharing their feedback.”

The #MeToo movement has generated significantly more sexual harassment complaints, and a corresponding number of retaliatory incidents, the authors say. The increase may reflect “greater willingness among people to speak up.” The retaliation certainly reflects institutional insecurity and a history of avoiding serious issues affecting the well-being and safety of employees. 

Welch and Stubben argue, “Because operations metrics and accounting reports do not reveal every problem in the workplace, internal whistleblowing systems can be a tool for seeing what you otherwise wouldn’t. Instead of trying to reduce whistleblower complaints, [business leaders] should ask themselves, ‘Does our compliance team have enough resources to investigate these reports?’” 

This approach applies to how organizations should talk about whistleblower complaints internally and externally. Express respect for whistleblowers. Treat each complaint as a serious matter to investigate. Describe whistleblowing as a sign of a healthy workplace culture. Within the constraints of employee privacy and legal disclosure, report the outcome of a whistleblower complaint. Don’t blow off media inquiries.

The HBR article includes two contra-indicated pieces of advice, based on study findings. The first is second-hand whistleblower complaints can be more credible and valuable. The second is that complaints with fewer details can often serve as a useful starting point for more comprehensive reviews. 

While compliance officers may give more credence to first-hand complaints, Welch and Stubben cite their own study findings suggesting otherwise. “We find that reports based on secondhand information are not only credible, but also more likely to provide information that helps prevent litigation and government fines.” That could be because there is less emotion and bias built-in to a complaint.

“Firsthand reports are more likely to identify minor, self-serving issues, such as a broken thermostat,” they say. “Secondhand reports are more likely to identify critical issues that implicate other employees, such as embezzling company funds. We do not recommend taking decisive action based solely on a secondhand report. When investigating claims, it is important to seek out witnesses and material evidence. However, a secondhand report can be the beginning of an investigation that could not have happened otherwise.” 

A separate study by Welch and Stubben revealed “reports submitted with scant information ended up being particularly useful in avoiding litigation and government fines. These reports come from employees who want to start a conversation about what they observed, but don’t want to submit a document with details just yet.”

Demanding whistleblowers comply with standard complaint forms can discourage initial reports that expose serious problems requiring deeper investigation. Openness and flexibility is a better avenue to discover problems that can be addressed before they fester into big issues.

Welch and Stubben evaluated Navex Global data consisting of 2 million internal reports made by employees in more than 1,000 publicly traded US companies.