In today's fast-paced world, driven by a societal shift towards more ethical business practices, whistleblowing has emerged as a key ethical management tool for organizations.
However, blowing the whistle on issues such as fraud, corruption, misconduct, harassment, bullying, and unethical behavior has in the past sometimes been met with retaliation, making the decision to speak up a difficult one. That's where a whistleblowing service comes in, providing a safe, neutral, and confidential channel for raising and addressing concerns.
This guide delves into the role of the whistleblowing service in the whistleblowing process, outlines its responsibilities, and discusses what can be expected when seeking assistance.
A whistleblowing service is a dedicated mechanism or process, often provided by an external third party provider, where a company hires an external representative - an ombudsman - to manage whistleblowing reports for them. As part of this process, employees, contractors, or stakeholders are able to report concerns about unethical behavior, misconduct, or illegal activities within an organization to a neutral party who confidentially and independently assesses and investigates received complaints.
The standard full whistleblower service usually consists of three modules: Policy & process introduction, Whistleblower channel, and Screening & case handling.
The Policy & Process introduction part of the whistleblowing service is mainly directed at creating or reviewing a whistleblowing policy of the company. Creating a whistleblowing policy is an extensive and demanding process that requires a knowledge of national legislation in the field of whistleblowing and legal provisions.
Here, the whistleblowing service covers:
Definition of a whistleblower status: for the whistleblowing policy companies get the specific definition of a whistleblower status and which complaints fall under whistleblowing protection in line with the law;
Establishing & choosing reporting options: under the whistleblowing service, companies receive an evaluation of reporting tools together with a recommendation on which to use. The description of internal reporting tools and how to access them should also be mentioned in the whistleblowing policy;
Define the investigation process and the company’s obligations: the obligations include the deadlines for confirmation of received reports and feedback on the case resolution, actions in case the investigation needs more time and/or requires the involvement of a third party, elaboration on how the company ensures full confidentiality of whistleblowers;
Elaboration on the investigation committee: assistance with defining whom the investigation committee will consist of and how cases will be distributed;
Plan for investigation committee training: draft the frame that devotes to continuous training of the investigation committee (other internal case handlers or an ombudsman), thus signaling to reporters that the committee can be trusted;
Position on anonymous whistleblowing: under the whistleblowing service, companies can get the evaluation of the introduction of anonymous reporting. Depending on the decision (in cases when anonymous reporting is not required by law), a lawyer will advise companies on the whistleblowing tools compliant with the requirement of anonymity.
Training for employees: the action plan for educating employees on topics of whistleblowing, protection from retaliation, and their rights.
Depending on whether companies are only about to implement or already have a whistleblowing hotline, the whistleblowing services include analyzing, setting, and managing reporting tools.
Among the most common reporting tools are:
The ombudsman can offer one or a few hotlines, depending on what companies would prefer. Today more and more companies choose only digital platforms as it covers all needs and ensures the utmost privacy. However, some companies might choose to complement it with a phone line or an in-person meeting if they feel that their employees are more comfortable with these options. However, this might require a risk assessment of the channel in line with the national legislation, as these channels can’t provide complete anonymity or confidentiality.
The main responsibilities of a whistleblowing service usually include the following:
Receiving and documenting reports: the ombudsman gathers and records the information provided by the whistleblower, ensuring that all relevant details are accurately captured;
Maintaining confidentiality: a whistleblowing service (and implicitly the ombudsman) takes measures to safeguard the whistleblower's identity throughout the entire reporting and investigation process;
Assessing reports: the ombudsman reviews the submitted reports, assesses their credibility and urgency, and determines the appropriate next steps;
Addressing concerns: in some cases, the ombudsman may be responsible for conducting investigations or facilitating the resolution of reported concerns. In other instances, the whistleblowing service provider may coordinate with the organization's internal teams to ensure that the concerns are appropriately addressed;
Reporting and feedback: the whistleblowing service may provide constant reports to the organization about the nature and volume of concerns received, enabling the organization to identify trends and implement preventive measures.
Depending on the company’s needs, companies can purchase the whole service package or only needed parts of the service. For example, if the company already has a whistleblowing policy and processes in place, but they need help with day to day management of whistleblowing reports, they can ask for screening and case-handling services.
Before selecting a whistleblowing service, it is essential to consider various factors that ensure the service meets the organization's needs while providing the necessary support and protection to whistleblowers.
An ombudsman can indeed provide a whistleblowing service, serving as an impartial intermediary to help resolve disputes and address concerns. In most cases, ombudsmen are trained lawyers who are independent from a hiring organization, have a background in conflict resolution, are able to communicate effectively, are familiar with the applicable laws and regulations governing whistleblowing, etc.
Below are some key aspects to consider when choosing a whistleblowing service:
Independence and impartiality: the whistleblowing service provider should be an independent third party, not affiliated with an organization, to ensure impartiality and minimize conflicts of interest;
Confidentiality and anonymity: the whistleblowing service should have strong measures in place to protect the confidentiality of whistleblowers and their reports throughout the process;
Experience and expertise: the service provider/ the ombudsman should have a proven history of handling sensitive information, conducting investigations, and providing support to whistleblowers in cases that are relevant to the organization's sector;
Multiple reporting channels: the whistleblowing service should offer more than one reporting channel, such as telephone hotlines, online portals, email addresses, or mobile applications, to cater to different preferences and ensure accessibility;
24/7 availability and multilingual support. Amond different channels, there should be a service available around the clock and in various languages, allowing whistleblowers to report concerns at any time and from any location.
Reporting via a whistleblowing service / hired lawyer doesn't differ much from usual reporting. In the end, the tools that are used are the same as if you were submitting a report to the internal compliance manager via a hotline. The main difference is a person appointed to go through whistleblowing reports: instead of having it hired within the company, it is a trusted person hired outside.
Thus, reporting concerns via an ombudsman within a whistleblowing service will typically look like this:
Identifying the designated ombudsman within the specific organization or industry by checking the organization's intranet, employee handbook, or code of conduct (if the case);
Gathering relevant information, such as dates, locations, names of individuals involved, and any supporting evidence or documents;
Reaching out to the ombudsman providing a brief overview of the specific concern, and, if needed, scheduling a confidential conversation to discuss the matter further. Informants can reach the ombudsman through the whistleblowing channels the ombudsman provides, such as a whistleblowing system, phone hotline, or in person;
Seeking guidance and support: the ombudsman will offer advice on the reporting process, the whistleblower’s rights, and any additional resources or support available;
Following the recommended process, which may involve submitting a formal written complaint, providing additional documentation or evidence, or participating in further discussions or meetings with the ombudsman or other relevant parties;
Maintaining communication with the ombudsman throughout the entire process.
A digital whistleblowing hotline (or whistleblowing system) is a service that helps employees, employees, contractors, or stakeholders report malpractice and unlawful or unethical behavior within the workplace. It is an important tool for reducing risks and building trust, as it enables managers and team leaders to detect and act on possible misconduct at an early stage.
Historically, the term ‘whistleblowing hotline’ referred to a telephone-based reporting service. Today it is used as a collective term to describe all forms of whistleblowing systems, including digital ones.
A part of the whistleblowing services typically refers to external, third-party providers that offer a secure and confidential platform for reporting misconduct. These services often include hotlines, email addresses, or online portals where employees can report their concerns without fear of retaliation.
In other words, a whistleblowing system will always be a part of the modern whistleblowing service. A whistleblowing system such as a digital portal complements a whistleblowing service ensuring an ombudsman can provide comprehensive support to employees who decide to speak up.
Overall, when it comes to promoting transparency and accountability in organizations, both whistleblowing services and systems play vital roles. They never compete, but supplement each other.
Thus, for example, an ombudsman can operate on a whistleblowing system and receive cases through the platform, ensuring ultimate confidentiality and providing an opportunity for anonymous reporting, if their digital platform allows for it.
Whistleblowing via an ombudsman/ within a whistleblowing service is not always anonymous. It can be anonymous, if the ombudsman introduces an anonymous whistleblowing channel, such as a whistleblowing system with the required features and security.
Either way, whistleblowing via the whistleblowing service is always confidential. Not sure about the difference? Check the article on anonymous & confidential reporting.
The primary goal of a whistleblowing service is to create a safe and confidential environment for individuals to report concerns, and whistleblowers can specifically request that their identity remains confidential throughout the reporting and investigation process.
Given their independent and impartial nature, sometimes reporting through a third-party ombudsman can be misunderstood as external reporting. However, this is not the case, as the ombudsman is typically appointed or contracted by the organization to facilitate the reporting and resolution of concerns within the organization. Their key function is to assist in addressing concerns internally, acting as an impartial intermediary within the organization's internal procedures, and investigating cases on behalf of the company. As a result, their involvement in the reporting process is utterly internal.
A whistleblower ombudsman is an external third-party provider hired by companies to manage whistleblowing reports for them. Ombudsman plays a role of a neutral party for the hiring company by acting as a case handler on behalf of the company. When reporting via ombudsman employers or third parties can be assured of full confidentiality of the provided information.
The role of the ombudsman in whistleblowing services is to serve as an impartial intermediary, ensuring a safe and confidential environment for individuals to report concerns and facilitating the investigation and resolution of those concerns in a timely, reliable, and discrete manner.
The ombudsman should, to the greatest extent possible, protect a whistleblower against any acts of retaliation or discrimination at the workplace linked to or resulting from whistleblowing.
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This article was developed for information purposes only. For legal advice, contact your trusted advisor. Alternatively, Whistleblower Software can connect you with a local legal expert.