We live in a time when individuals and groups are growing in confidence to speak the truth to those in power.

Increasingly, we see people using the media to publicly denounce those who they believe have abused the power they hold or whose financial affairs lack integrity.

In many ways this is a very positive development. However for those of us with responsibility for ensuring our organisations manage risk effectively – and who understand the importance of corporate transparency and accountability – this new era of ‘public whistleblowing’ presents us with something of a challenge.

Why do people disclose to the media?

An often-overlooked aspect of these stories is why (and how) these cases ended up in the public eye. One explanation is that many people believed the institutions which govern them or the organisations that employ them, would not have listened had they raised their concerns directly with them. A number of recent high-profile stories have shown just how well-founded those beliefs can be.

Encouraging ‘constructive dissent’

The challenge to address is that if our employees – the eyes and ears of our business – do not feel confident enough to raise concerns internally at any early stage about suspected serious wrongdoing, then this is likely to compromise our ability to operate to the highest standards of corporate ethical conduct.

To tackle that, an organisation needs to work hard to develop a culture in which ‘constructive dissent’ is actively encouraged; moving away from one where people are inclined to keep their heads down and avoid ‘rocking the boat’.

I am not talking here about promoting ‘whistleblowing’ as such, but rather cultivating an environment where our people, typically a business’ most important asset, feel safe to challenge the status quo and raise concerns through internal channels.

The aim is to build a culture where people know that speaking up will be met by a senior team that is ready to ‘listen up’.  This creates a healthy, ethical organisation where not only ‘bad’ news will surface quickly and be nipped in the bud, but creative contributions to promote business success will also be free to circulate.

Healthy cultures still need a safety valve

Nonetheless, even in such a supportive and collaborative culture, from time-to-time things will inevitably not run smoothly.

Issues will arise that make employees, for whatever reason, feel uncomfortable about raising internally. Perhaps a particularly sensitive issue was disclosed, but no action was taken, causing the discloser to become increasingly anxious and reticent to come forward again.

It is in these situations that a confidential and secure way of raising serious concerns can help. An effective confidential reporting facility gives senior management vital early warning of serious malpractice, and acts as a powerful deterrent to wrongdoing.

Importantly, a well-designed process will allow disclosers to protect their identity, have their voice heard and be confident that their concern will be investigated – helping to neutralise the appeal of a more public disclosure.

By creating the right environment for your employees, you will reduce the chances of your next conduct issue reaching a journalist’s inbox, and ensure it reaches yours first.