The EU Whistleblowing Directive: A Call for Ethical Leadership

We strongly encourage any law which underlines the need for protection of those (“Whistleblowers”) who bring us transparency and put a stop to wrongdoing. We welcome the EU Whistleblowing Directive (EU 2019/1937) and all national derivatives of it. We greatly value the symbolic meaning and the attention it brings about.

Unfortunately, we also see a serious negative side effect.

Any organisation has a very important objective to achieve next to the objective of being compliant with ‘whistleblowing’ law. This objective entails: early transparency by means of speaking up, so that ethical wrongdoing can be detected as early as possible. Even though these objectives appear similar, they actually often conflict. This occurs mainly when organisations take strict compliancy with whistleblowing law as the means to generate early transparency by means of speaking up. This results in legal terminology, complicated formal process steps, exceptions, complicated scope restrictions, rights and duties and scary labels like “whistleblower”, being communicated to employees in order to invite them to speak up. No one will.

Therefore, it is very important to have one simple method that enables it to pick up signals of perceived wrongdoings. If the means to speak up are diffuse and complex, the barrier enabling people to do so will be higher. “Keeping it simple” is a key element of a successful SpeakUp program.

With this in mind – when putting the EU Whistleblowing Directive on your agenda – we want to call on you to:

  • Seize the moment and invest in creating a solid SpeakUp Program;
  • Acknowledge that the purpose of such a program is never to create whistleblowers or reports;
  • Acknowledge that the ultimate purpose of such a program is to create transparency in order to put a stop to wrongdoing;
  • Acknowledge that focussing on the law alone will have a deterring effect on a person who just wants to share a concern;
  • Acknowledge that a person who just wants to share a concern is not the same as a whistleblower;
  • Acknowledge that making use of whistleblower protection law, implies that there must be a whistleblower. Not having a whistleblower at all is the ultimate whistleblower protection;
  • Acknowledge that whistleblower protection is limited: You can never (never!) protect someone from social exclusion or mental distress;
  • Acknowledge that – sometimes – you have to let the need to follow the exact letter of the law go and dare to stand for what is ultimately the best thing to do;
  • Take a stand and do what is right for your employees: Focus on and invest in a preventive internal safety net: Your SpeakUp program;
  • Protect your employees from reporting external too soon;
  • Never (never!) underestimate the difficulty of speaking up for humankind, and keep this in mind all the time when designing and improving your SpeakUp Program.

Surely, protecting the “whistleblower” –  if such an unfortunate situation should take place – is something that should be strived for by any means possible. However, it should not be forgotten that not all initiatives of sharing a concern are “whistleblowing” cases. This in itself will scare people off. With other words: “Whistleblowing” should have a spot somewhere in the broader SpeakUp Program, but it should not be the centre piece. If it will be, it will have a negative effect on the ultimate objective of early transparency by means of speaking up.

With this piece we want to make you aware of this, so that together we can all better protect the “whistleblower’, your employees, your organisation and society as a whole. We look forward to hearing your ideas!

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