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  • Fostering a speak-up culture - Importance of effective “Whistleblowing” programs

Fostering a speak-up culture - Importance of effective “Whistleblowing” programs

10 January 2022

Aakash Bassi , Partner - Forensic Services |

Speaking up about potential fraud and misconduct of a colleague or a supervisor in an organisation is often an exceedingly difficult decision for any employee to make as it brings with it potential for retaliation and being ostracised by fellow colleagues. This, coupled with increased awareness and enhanced protection of whistleblowers across jurisdictions by regulators and law enforcement agencies, has put organisations in the front and centre of bolstering a speak-up culture. Unfortunately, the Corporate World has seen a slew of instances across the World, right from the early 2000s to recent high-profile cases, where instead of gratitude for whistleblowers, companies have chosen measures resulting in whistleblowers feeling isolated and fearful of losing their jobs. These cases exhibit what can happen to organisations that do not take whistleblowing and whistleblowers seriously.

The COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically shifted the operating landscape for organisations across a host of industries and geographic locations. An increase in remote working poses challenges for companies looking to build and maintain a robust ethics and integrity framework. Communication is key, as it is easy to get boxed and feel separated while working from home. It is for the leaders across the organisation to ensure that the employees feel valued and build a culture of speaking up about issues without the fear of retaliation to create a safe working environment.

An effective whistleblowing culture goes beyond the implementation of a whistleblower policy and related protocols and includes instilling a sense of moral righteousness by promoting stories of courage along with continued organisational support to drive dialogue that allows employees to raise concerns in good faith. An equally important aspect is the ability of the management to “listen in”, to take constructive criticism /feedback from the employees. Listening In also includes actively looking into concerns through internal or external investigations and related response/remediation.

In the UAE, notable changes to the legislation for whistleblower protection were made in May 2020 when the Federal National Council approved the witness protection program in the UAE. Additionally, Dubai Law No. 4 of Financial Crimes of 2016 and DIFC Law No. 7 of 2018 provide protection to whistleblowers under certain circumstances. The new legislation under the Witness Protection Program aims to provide protection to individuals giving evidence in court and penalise persons who reveal or leak information about a witness. The legislations include financial crimes and crimes involving people holding public posts. Given the recent developments, including the new law to hold ministers and senior officials accountable, a change in whistleblower culture within UAE is imminent. The culture of a government, regulators and the message out to companies and businesses will play a critical role in how companies across UAE effectively develop and implement their whistleblowing programs

According to ACFE’s fraud survey report 2020, about 43 per cent of all frauds are detected through tips, and half of those tips come from employees, including 33 per cent of whistleblowers using channels available to report misconduct. In our view, a strong whistleblowing program should have the following key components as outlined below.

Confidentiality and multiple reporting channels – Guaranteeing confidentiality, anonymity and permitting multiple avenues to report provide a psychological safe space for raising concerns, be it through a hotline or submitting an online report. For example, access to multiple channels allows an employee to take notice of the situation reported to a superior not acted upon, as it allows the employee to choose any other available channel, thereby making the information reach the right people who can sit up take notice.

Protection against retaliation – Any possibility of retaliation against the whistleblower should be mitigated, and a well-rounded policy against retaliation and monitoring instances of non-compliance would build a credible and responsible speak-up environment. For example, an organisation could appoint someone from the People & Culture team to check in with the whistleblower periodically after the concern has been raised to identify retaliation if any. Further, communication of the same will increase awareness and send a clear message that the organisation will monitor for retaliation and take appropriate action.

Transparency and Recognition – Keeping the whistleblower looped in with the outcome of the investigation (within the bounds of local law) can help build tremendous confidence in the process and allow employees to feel valued, thereby increasing the opportunities for reporting of issues, as and when observed. Issuing an organisation-wide report promoting success stories (with the names removed for confidentiality) would demonstrate the  system’s effectiveness and considered an indicator of the health of the whistleblowing program.

To conclude, remember that just because an organisation has a hotline does not mean employees will use it. An organisation’s core values should encourage diverse perspectives, including perceptions employees have about its culture, which would then set a belief to report misconduct or wrongdoings they observe in their surroundings. In the end what matters is continuous improvement to make whistleblowing more effective as the organisation matures.

With our deep understanding of the regulatory/enforcement landscape and cultural norms, and related experience across Industry sectors and geographies, we can help assess the existing whistleblower framework and identify opportunities to enhance the framework and related ethical culture at your organisation.

BDO’s Forensic practice in UAE is part of BDO’s global network of experienced and seasoned forensic professionals experienced in a comprehensive range of matters involving fraud, corruption, accounting irregularities, and compliance.

The value of our experience is evident in the questions we ask, the analysis we provide, and the credibility we bring in support of complex, high-stakes matters in jurisdictions around the World. We provide a comprehensive range of forensic services.