Whistle while you work is starting to take on a whole new meaning in offices across the country.
As more and more Canadian businesses adopt policies that allow their employees - and in some cases even their customers and the company's suppliers - to "out" corporate wrongdoing, the spotlight is slowly shifting from a climate where whistleblowers are shunned.
Today, companies are making it easier for employees to speak up through whistleblower policies, not only if they've discovered corporate malfeasance, but also in cases where workplace violence or safety concerns have gone unaddressed or if sexual harassment is taking place.
"In an ideal world, there should be an appetite for hearing about this and it shouldn't be necessary to have a whistleblower policy," says Michael Stern, president and CEO of Michael Stern Associates Inc., a Toronto-based executive search and executive coaching firm.
These type of cases are to be expected, he adds. "In any kind of employee group, you will have complaints of some kind," he notes. "If you get nothing, there may be a concern about confidentiality or concern about something else. People will always have a lot to complain about."
Robert Kuling, director of audit services for Calgary-based oilfield services company Precision Drilling Trust, says whistleblower policies are a good way to open up lines of communication.
"I think the reality is that organizations are large and complex and employees may not have the fortitude to talk about sensitive situations face to face," says Kuling. "We don't live in a perfect world."
Precision, which employs about 6,000 people, instituted its own whistleblower service in part due to New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) requirements - the company is listed and trades on both the NYSE and Toronto Stock Exchange - that evolved out of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act.
Signed into law in 2002, this accountability legislation was a response to a number of major U.S. corporate and accounting scandals that rocked the American business world.
Precision's program has evolved since it was introduced in 2003, says Kuling. The company expanded the scope of complaints that could be made to cover other issues of concern to workers and has hired a third-party firm to ensure that a whistleblower will feel safe in coming forward.
He adds outsourcing the service to a third-party provides users the ability to come forward to people who are trained in collecting the right information and who know what questions to ask, something a company may struggle with if it decides to set up its own in-house program.
"We've clearly said to our employees that this should be a last resort and that you should report any concerns to your manager," says Kuling. "However, if you do not feel comfortable, this is an avenue available to you."
Precision will not tolerate retribution for whistleblower calls made to the service. Employees cannot be fired, demoted or transferred.
As for the number of complaints received from Precision employees, suppliers, trust unitholders and customers - the service is available internally to employees as well as through a link on its website - Kuling says that there aren't many.
"Generally, the call volume is inevitably lower than people expect. People always expect the phone is going to be ringing like crazy and it never is," says Kuling. "I think one of the biggest things (the service does) is that it improves transparency and accountability."
Even so, it wasn't always easy to get companies to come around to thinking that they need this type of service, says Ray Renaud, director and co-owner of Calgary-based Bison Security Group, an investigative and corporate security consulting firm that offers the ConfidenceLine program that Precision utilizes.
"In 1992, it was the worst thing they (companies) could ever imagine. There was no appetite for that type of program back then, even though it made a lot of sense," says Renaud. "Culturally, most organizations were not prepared to open the door to that type of thing."
That changed after highly publicized scandals at Enron, Tyco and WorldCom and the resulting Sarbanes-Oxley legislation. Not long afterward, Canadian regulators adopted similar rules for publicly traded companies. "Every publicly traded company in this country has got to have a whistleblower program," says Renaud.
Bison helps its clients implement their whistleblowing programs. Reports are sent to designated personnel at the company for resolution. Should the report be about the person who would normally deal with the issue, it will be routed to someone else instead.
"We provide a very secure, confidential reporting process," says Renaud, adding it is designed to be anonymous so employees will feel free to report even the most sensitive work-related issues.
People who report wrongdoing through Bison's ConfidenceLine remain anonymous through the process unless at some point they choose to identify themselves. Should a call relate to theft or fraud, the company will bring in its interview specialists, typically former law enforcement investigators.
"The goal is to make sure the reports have some basis," says Renaud. "When you find the information is unfounded, generally the callers won't call back - we give them a caller ID number so they won't have to give their name. We ask them to call back in two to three days to update them on the progress of their investigation or if we have more questions."
Stern agrees anonymity - up to a point - is critical if a whistleblower program is to succeed.
"I don't see how things like this can work very well without anonymity, at least at the early stage," he says. "It has to be as easy as possible to report wrongdoings. However, and there's a big however, I don't think you take anything too seriously unless the person is willing to identify themselves.
"The danger here is that you're opening things up to all kinds of false accusations. You want to make it easy for legitimate things to be reported, but you don't want to set a forum for dissing."
Stern says organizations are becoming more attuned to becoming better corporate citizens and to acting more ethically and more professionally.
"I think it's becoming more important for employees to know they're working for a company that values that type of additional information."
(Laura Severs can be reached at email@example.com)