Whistleblowers must be heard, not silenced

Rita Trehan
Rita Trehan LLC
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The shocking allegations of sexual harassment at Uber and Tesla are a stark reminder that not all businesses put the welfare of their staff first. Paying lip service to these cultural fissures is not enough; companies of all sizes must take proactive steps to prioritise open and inclusive environments in which whistleblowers are commended, rather than chastised.

HR departments are the lifeblood of any company worth its salt. They should be outlets for employees to voice their concerns where appropriate, and settle disputes between staff and their managers in an even-handed manner. They are ideally placed to assess employee morale, identify malicious corporate practices and promote inclusivity and equality within the workplace.   

But too many HR professionals are under pressure from their paymasters to fixate on the reputation of their businesses at all costs. Ignoring sexual harassment complaints, and covering up other instances of inappropriate behaviour, are manifestations of malignant workplace cultures.  Rather than hope that complainants will simply disappear – or worse, apply undue pressure to employees who speak out – ethical businesses have an obligation to take the objections of whistleblowers seriously.

Let’s be clear: whistleblowing employees are not out to damage their companies. They are almost always motivated by a desire to improve the condition of their workplace, as well as settle their own legitimate grievances. When whistleblowers turn to the press, they have usually exhausted all of the ‘usual channels’. With the brand tarnished and the individual blacklisted, there are no winners in this situation.

It is not in anyone’s interest for internal disputes to become public slanging matches. When HR takes seriously the complaints of whistleblowers, employee accountability is dramatically improved and transparency is encouraged at all levels. By taking a stand against poor behaviour as required, like a Rube Goldberg machine things begin to fall into place. Promotion opportunities are more likely to be based on merit than tainted by office politics; women are more evenly represented at the highest levels; overall morale is substantially improved; and talented staff members are retained.

In this age of instantaneous media, businesses can no longer underestimate the potential damage to their reputation from whistleblowers exposing toxic workplace cultures; nor can they take the morale of their employees for granted. As a starting point, the most ethical businesses must lead the way by publicly championing the importance of a nurturing and inclusive working environment, that prizes and cultivates talented individuals. Only then can business growth go hand-in-hand with business ethics.

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