It’s clear that attitudes are rapidly changing when it comes to the subject of ‘speaking up’ in the workplace. But as more people prepare to make their voice heard, what developments can we expect to see in corporate whistleblowing in the years ahead?

The provision of speak up services has evolved significantly since 1995, when Expolink launched as Europe’s first external speak up services provider.

In the past few years, that evolution has gathered pace as technological innovation, client demand, and public scrutiny (most recently via by the #MeToo movement) have converged to put ethics and governance on the agenda of virtually every organisation.

Here we summarise the main areas we think will influence the shape of ‘speaking up’ in the years to come.

1. Increased focus on the ‘whistleblower’ and overall user experience

When assessing speak up provision, organisations often base much of their decision around three main factors:

  • cost (in time and money)
  • need (eg. regulatory, legal or contractual)
  • convenience (for the organisation)

While these are undoubtedly important, it can lead to the needs of the end user being overlooked, resulting in a poor speak up experience. This can result in a lower volume and quality of reports, storing up significant risks.

Shifting focus

In the next few years, we expect more organisations to begin taking steps to redress this balance in favour of the whistleblower and their specific needs.

Issues like accessibility, anonymity and empathy will increasingly be prioritised during the scoping of speak up programmes – particularly where initial deployment of a speak up service was viewed as a ‘box-ticking’ exercise.

Service improvements

As well as a growth in demand for independent reporting channels, we’ve witnessed other signs over the past year that suggest whistleblowers’ needs are being taken more seriously.

For instance, we’ve seen much greater client engagement in user experience-themed events, as well as a greater proportion of sales enquiries prioritising service coverage over cost.

A growing number of clients have also expressed interest in user feedback initiatives, with a dual focus on improving the speaking up experience and uncovering potential detriment.

Empathetic report handling

We’re also seeing more widespread agreement with the view that, far from being a ‘transaction’, speaking up is an emotionally-charged act that must be handled with care and empathy.

For these reasons, we expect the overriding focus on user experience to become the norm – rather than the exception – in the years ahead.

2. More choice driven by a competitive market

The rapid adoption of speak up services outside the established US and UK markets has led to the emergence of numerous small-scale, in-country providers – particularly within north-western Europe.

Maturing markets

In the next few years we expect the competitive marketplace to develop as these emerging players – each with their own niche specialism and USPs – consolidate within their home market and expand into new territories.

In addition, new competitors will emerge from within these markets – most likely with a low-cost, mobile-led service that excludes voice reporting channels (as we’ve already seen in the UK).

These providers will tailor their offer to specific sectors requiring a less complex solution or limited implementation or ongoing support.

The ‘second wave’

We also expect a second wave of in-country competitors (following the low cost, mobile-led model) to establish themselves within markets which are yet to fully embrace speak up programmes, such as southern and eastern Europe.

3. Greater investment in awareness and training

With speaking up now a widely accepted business practice, many companies are beginning to realise that introducing a policy and reporting service is not enough. In order to encourage reports, staff must be properly educated on what can be reported, how it can be reported – and feel safe in raising a concern.

Closing the training gap

At the other end the process, our research suggests 83% of organisations do not train managers on how to handle a whistleblowing report (2017 Expolink Client Survey). This highlights a failure by many organisations to handle reports with the care and sensitivity that they often require.

With such widespread scrutiny on business ethics and whistleblowing, progressive organisations are unlikely to allow such a situation to persist.

We envisage more organisations will invest growing sums in their compliance functions, ethics training, compliance systems and service marketing year-on-year.

Transparency and integration

The adoption of new technology will allow organisations to integrate whistleblowing and compliance data with data from other areas of the business, to highlight a broader range of risks and trends.

We also predict organisations increasing the transparency of their service, its processes and outcomes. This may include, for example, the sharing of how speak up reports have led to corrective action within the company – something only 9% of organisations currently do (2017 Expolink Client Survey).

4. Organisational culture will prioritise ethical behaviours

Recent revelations highlighting corporate tax avoidance scandals, sexual harassment and unethical working practices have created something of an ‘ethical earthquake’ in boardrooms across the globe.

‘Ethics by design’

The call for greater transparency, accountability and ethical values within corporate environments has grown louder than ever – and businesses will be forced to respond, or risk seeing their reputations damaged.

While this will clearly have a positive impact on established companies, it’s inevitable that new and growing companies will be forced to build ethical values into the fabric of their company from the outset.

In much the same way that new data privacy laws in Europe are forcing companies to adopt a ‘privacy by design’ approach to their business operations, we see ‘ethics by design’ becoming an emerging trend in the way companies approach strategic, tactical and operational decisions.

Building a ‘listen up’ culture

As we have alluded to above, this is likely to filter down into processes and programmes right across the board. Among other benefits, this will facilitate more supportive ‘listen up’ business cultures to complement effective ‘speak up’ programmes.

5. Technology will drive changes in reporting channels and data analysis

Advances in technology are already influencing changes in the way speak up reports are made, and in the way organisations receive and analyse the resulting data.

Technology as a reporting enabler

In terms of reporting, we envisage online channels eventually overtaking telephone as the most popular way to speak up over the next two years. This will be driven by mobile-friendly reporting tools (like our SpeakingUp™ smartphone app), which we believe will become a high-volume, core reporting channel by 2020.

However, the growing focus on improving user experience and service accessibility will prompt organisations to widen (rather than eliminate) channels, and improve existing services – particularly for multilingual services.

For example, we predict telephone will remain a core channel, but increasingly evolve to support a more intelligent routing experience for multilingual calls (along with greater cross-channel integration). With significant advances in artificial intelligence (AI), we also expect the role of automated translation to grow for both written and live translations within the next five years.

Predictive modelling and analysis

Technology will play a greater role in the way organisations gain insights from the reports they receive too.

As companies are forced to adopt more stringent data privacy measures, the adoption of secure case management platforms is likely to grow.

Analytical tools and predictive software will enable companies to combine whistleblowing data with information from across the business, and identify where problems are most likely to occur in the future.

6. Local legislation will increase protection for whistleblowers

During 2017 alone, companies in France, Brazil, Poland, the UK and the Netherlands have been adapting to new local whistleblowing legislation.

With Italy poised to introduce new legislation and Australia and Canada actively reviewing their existing protections, its likely more countries will move to enshrine whistleblower protection in law during the next few years.

GDPR uncertainty

GDPR, meanwhile, will force organisations with interests in the EU to look more closely at the data they process as a result of speak up reports. However, GDPR’s application within a whistleblowing context remains uncertain.

Clarification around key issues like ‘Consent’ and ‘Right to access’ (particularly where there is a risk of exposing a whistleblower’s identity) are likely to remain unresolved until tested in a court of law, or until EU lawmakers draft specific guidance. Both are likely to take time.

Financial incentives

Whistleblower reward programmes (akin to the US Securities and Exchange Commission whistleblower program) will continue to be debated, but we do not expect to see Europe adopt similar measures in the short-to-medium term.

However, countries facing endemic corruption problems may increasingly look to the Nigerian reward model, and consider introducing a similar policy to encourage disclosures.

Is your programme keeping up?

While the above will influence corporate speak up programmes in the years to come, it’s worth remembering their impact will vary from one organisation to another.

A common factor, though, is the need to put service users’ needs at the centre of your programme. Findings from our recent client survey demonstrate just how effective speak up channels can be in revealing serious business risks.

By taking steps to build trust and improve the accessibility of your service, you will significantly increase your chances of uncovering and tackling those issues at the earliest opportunity.