whistleblower

Are your employees equipped to report the bad behaviour of their colleagues and/or managers?

Do they need to be?

In Toronto this week, much is being made of news that the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC)—the city’s public-transit authority—is implementing a new whistleblower program. The goal of this $33,000 project? To give the organization’s 13,000 employees a safe means to anonymously report illegal or unethical on-the-job behaviour. Employees can call, email or write a letter voicing their concerns to a private consultancy (Toronto-based ClearView Strategic Partners) hired by the TTC, which will then investigate further.

In other words, it’s a snitch line.

And boy, are some people upset about it. Specifically, Amalgamated Transit Union Local 113, the union representing the TTC’s employees. Union president Bob Kinnear told The Toronto Sun that the whistleblower program “casts unnecessary aspersions” over all the commission’s employees: “By implementing a program like this it almost suggests there is a systemic problem at the TTC and from the knowledge that we have, there isn’t.” He went on to argue that the onus should be on management to ensure employees feel comfortable to bring up any concerns.

Kinnear’s comments are unsurprising, given that much of his job is to condemn anything that threatens his members’ job security. But he brings up a good point: if an organization is managed effectively, there should be no need for a whisteblower program.

Now, I’m not naïve enough to believe that such idyll is the norm at massive organizations, much less unionized environments as fraught with management/labour tension as the TTC. Which is why snitch lines make sense in these contexts. Some of the greatest examples of corporate wrongdoing in recent years—think: Enron’s financial scandal and Halliburton’s illegal government contracts—came to light because of whistleblowers.

But at SMEs—let me amend that, at well-run SMEs—I’d argue that a snitch line is probably a waste of time.

Why? Because well-run SMEs have open cultures in which employees aren’t afraid to challenge the status quo. These organizations have good managers who solicit their charges’ feedback, listen to it and act on it. Well-run SMEs have policies and processes in place designed to eliminate corruption—and they’re small enough to make sure they’re actually followed.

Yes, this sounds like the stuff of a million mission statements. But it’s so much easier for smaller organizations to create cultures of accountability and transparency than it is for their large counterparts.

How do you do that? Install good, workable policies to make sure employees behave properly. Adopt management practices—such as regular one-on-one meetings—that give staff a venue in which to speak candidly with management. Consider using open-book management to give everyone an idea of where the company stands. (For just one example of many, take QuickContractors.com, a 2013 PROFIT 500 firm in which all employees are given information on everything—including salaries. According to CEO Trevor Bouchard, the practice keeps everyone above board—and on their toes.)

All these measures create workplace cultures in which everyone feels accountable and empowered, which also has the nice byproduct of improving the business. And none carry the “Big Brother” stigma of snitch lines.

Whistleblower programs may work for the giants. But if you’re considering one in your business, your efforts might be better spent simply running a better company.

Deborah Aarts is an award-winning senior editor at PROFIT Magazine. Her coverage of opportunities and challenges for Canada’s entrepreneurial innovators covers HR, leadership, sales and international trade, among other topics.

Are snitch lines irrelevant for SMEs? Are there better ways to empower employees to blow the whistle? Share your thoughts by commenting below.

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