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Why staying anonymous isn’t as safe as it seems

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With the (very welcome) introduction of the EU Whistleblowing Directive placing minimum standards on employers handling whistleblowers, the market has opened up to organisations offering all-in-one solutions to managing corporate whistleblowing. But do they really work?

The latest to join the party are anonymous reporting platforms – allowing whistleblowers to contact an external body, which will package up their concerns as clearly as possible for their employer and without the risk of identification. For UK employers looking to harmonise their processes with their European colleagues this solution may seem incredibly appealing, and external platforms are part of many employers’ whistleblowing arrangements. However, there are certainly some considerations regarding anonymous reporting its important to consider.

Firstly, anonymous reporting can instil a false sense of confidence in any would-be whistleblower. With the option to withhold contact details, a whistleblower can assume they won’t be identified. But this is no guarantee. The risk of being exposed is affected by who knows the information you’re blowing the whistle about, how large the organisation is and whether you’ve provided identifying details within the disclosure itself.

Anonymous reporting systems are often unable to explain to whistleblowers which details could unmask them. No matter the quality of the encryption, staff can still work out who’s raised concerns if a whistleblower misses out on expert and tailored advice. We encourage any whistleblower considering the pros and cons of confidential versus anonymous reporting to contact our free legal advice helpline here.

Secondly, anonymous reporting can, by default, make a whistleblowing claim more challenging. Under whistleblowing law, anyone must show that their whistleblowing was the reason for their negative treatment or dismissal. If an employer can say that they didn’t know the source of the disclosure because it was anonymous (but has worked out a whistleblower’s identity anyway), it makes proving that link a good deal trickier.

Thirdly, anonymous reporting may only highlight part of the problem. Organisations should always be taking anonymous reports as a warning sign in themselves. It could mean that staff don’t feel comfortable speaking up and are relying on sharing concerns anonymously to avoid potential victimisation or repercussions. An organisation trying to address work culture issues will struggle if it can’t spot trends or patterns in where concerns are coming from. Feedback from whistleblowers is an essential part of the culture change process and much harder if you’re only receiving anonymous reports.

A strong whistleblowing culture where staff feel comfortable to raise concerns, not just through an anonymous platform, is better for all. We need to remember that by the time whistleblowers report their concerns, the original problem will often have escalated. The wrongdoing has already been committed, or the victimisation has already occurred. The earliest detection tool to save businesses time and resources is a good speak up culture. Raising concerns and speaking up should be an everyday part of your business, not limited to specific formal processes. The more work we all do to create a safe environment, rather than a last resort mechanism, the better concerns can be handled.

All this being said, anonymous reports should be taken seriously and investigated wherever possible. Where concerns are raised anonymously, some sophisticated technology can now allow a two-way communication between whistleblower and employer. This can help to build trust and may lead to the whistleblower engaging more with the investigator. So long as both parties are aware of the risks, anonymous whistleblowing platforms can usher in a brighter future for whistleblowers and whistleblowing. 

Membership and whistleblowing support

At Protect, we work with organisations to foster positive speak up cultures and run dedicated training and consultancy to ensure whistleblowing works – no matter how big or small your organisation. Do consider becoming a Protect member today, or get in touch to discuss your needs.

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