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"Whistleblowing is a nexus for the strength of your organizational culture."

In anticipation of its inaugural session in May, EDHEC Augmented Law Institute presents "From Whistleblowing to a Culture of Trust", a pioneer training program aimed at unraveling the complexities of integrity and ethics within organizations.

Reading time :
12 Mar 2024

Led by Wim Vandekerckhove, Professor of Business Ethics at EDHEC, renowned for his advisory role to global institutions, this training programme is designed to elevate internal whistleblowing as a foundation for trust and ethical conduct within the organisation.

In an exclusive interview, he explains the motivations behind this innovative initiative, highlighting the critical need for transparency and the transformative impact of whistleblowing on corporate culture. Applications are now open to professionals keen to navigate the complex landscape of compliance, ethics and trust. This programme represents a crucial step in cultivating a transparent, innovative and resilient organisational environment.

Could you briefly share your background in business ethics and what led you to focus on whistleblowing and trust within organizations?

I have assisted various organizations on integrity related issues, such as the Council of Europe, the Department of Health in the UK, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, the International Olympic Committee. I’m now Professor of Business Ethics at EDHEC Business School. I got interested in whistleblowing at the time of my PhD, some twenty years ago, just when the UK had its first whistleblowing legislation. It has only become more salient since then. Nearly every problem or scandal had early warnings that organizations missed or messed up.

 

No matter the size or sector, every organization depends on trust to function well and smoothly. It’s quite natural for people to show more commitment when they work with fair procedures and interact in a context of psychological safety. I understand business ethics to be that basic to leading an organization. Most people have a drive to be good at what they do, to have a sense of professional pride. That gives them an intuition for when something isn’t right and they will want to correct that wrongdoing. If they can’t do it themselves they want to speak up about it to someone they trust.

 

In your opinion, why is whistleblowing an essential aspect of modern business practices?

There are many reasons. One is that internal whistleblowing is more effective for finding occupational fraud than standard audits and monitoring (see 2022 ACFE Report to the Nations). Another reason is that in Europe every organization of more than 50 employees needs to have an internal whistleblowing channel. And to me as a Professor of Business Ethics who has researched this for a number of years now, whistleblowing is a nexus for the strength of your organizational culture. If you get internal whistleblowing to work, you will get integrity, trust, commitment, innovation, agility and resilience across your organization too.

 

What inspired the creation of the "From Whistleblowing to a Culture of Trust" training program?

Working on this topic, I talked to people on different sides: to professionals who used internal channels, to public whistleblowers who risked everything, to compliance officers who operate the channels and investigators who handle the reports, to top executives who wondered what this was all about, and to directors who felt they didn’t know what was happening on the ground. It’s really multi-faceted and I wanted to bring a program that not only offers different dimensions but is also carried from various positions.

 

The team at EDHEC Augmented Law Institute were very keen to hear the idea and further develop it. They helped us to structure it into different sessions and make it resonate within their portfolio of offerings. And all whilst preserving that original idea of bringing insights from different sides and positions. Some of our speakers have experience of blowing the whistle. It is very unique to hear from them about running an investigation or asking difficult questions to your manager.

 

Could you outline the main objectives of this program and what you hope participants will take away from it?

Participants will come to the program with a specific expertise and role, and they will leave enriched in their own role having seen what they do from a different perspective. The program comprises of masterclasses on different layers of whistleblowing in organizations. The main objective is to gain an understanding of how whistleblowing is connected and leads into other topics of integrity culture, like financial risk, legal requirements and data protection, good governance, and also psychological safety and courageous conversations.

 

Without giving too much away, could you give us a sneak peek into what each session will cover and the key themes?

There are four sessions.

The first one is about what we call the ‘hard skills’. It’s about working with whistleblowers in an investigation and it explores mindsets that facilitate or complicate in oversight, prevention and investigation practice.

The second session is on standards and regulations. It’s about the requirements of the new EU Directive on whistleblower protection and best practice for complying with these. Participants will also be able to benchmark their organization’s approach to international standards for whistleblowing systems, namely ISO37002.

Session three provides key insights from research and explores the science of speak-up, silence, listening and ignoring, and how can you enhance trustworthiness in organizations.

The final session is about what we call the ‘soft skills’ of listening and acting on critical feedback. It explores the behavioral barriers that stop teams and organizations from capitalizing on cultures of candor and courageous conversations.

 

How does whistleblowing contribute to building a culture of trust within an organization?

It is how you handle a whistleblowing report that makes or breaks trust within an organization.  Your different internal stakeholders read signals from that handling. So, obviously the whistleblower but also top management and board, and eventually also middle management. This can generate a word-of-mouth picturing the responsiveness of the organization to wrongdoing, concerns and values.

 

Why is this program particularly relevant for compliance professionals and legal experts? How can managers benefit from understanding whistleblowing and fostering an ethical workplace as well?

Managers play a huge role in generating trust in the organization. Both ‘tone at the top’ as well as ‘mood in the middle’ make a difference whether workers will share knowledge, insights, concerns and warnings. Research I’ve done even shows it is very likely that any report through the whistleblowing channel will have been raised with managers before that ("Whistleblowing as a Protracted Process: A Study of UK Whistleblower Journeys"). But they have failed to notice or have sent the wrong signal in how they responded. Understanding whistleblowing is both the formal stuff of procedures as well as the informal culture aspects of human interaction.

 

Compliance professionals and legal experts are the professionals at the nexus of all this. They are often not aware of what kind of signals they send out or to whom. The program gives them those insights. They do sense the tension – I call this the double-agent moment ("Handling Whistleblowing Reports: The Complexity of the Double Agent") – and the need to cater to different audiences. This program also helps them to do that, to play from different registers.

 

How do you see the role of whistleblowing evolving in the future?

We see that the more maturity an organization gets with operating a whistleblowing channel, the more it finds way to get a return on that investment. There is early detection of wrongdoing and thus less damage, but there are many other ways to use data from the channel and let it boost confidence and collaboration within the organization. We also see organizations opening their whistleblowing channel for entities in their value chain to pick up on environmental issues or human rights concerns. That brings in an additional dynamic, so even more balls to juggle for the compliance professionals.

 

What advice would you give to organizations looking to strengthen their ethics and compliance programs?

Try to see what you are doing from different positions and perspectives. What does the board expect from the whistleblowing channel? How do workers imagine the process once they make a report? How do you maintain trust throughout the investigation and when you close a case? How can you generate organizational learning without breaching data rules. Those are very different dots that need to be connected to find your way on a map. That’s difficult to achieve sometimes but our program makes this possible.

 

Interested in joining this program?

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