What do you do when it’s time to tell on someone at work?
After the standard recruitment process, a young professional was offered a job in the talent division of a software company, on one condition—he was asked to pay a fee regularly to the systems department person who had approved his case. The applicant agreed and took the position, paying this “recruiter fee” for two months before he realized it was not official procedure. Using the company’s whistle-blower policy, he exposed the culprit, who was eventually asked to leave.
When an ethical choice presents itself and an individual cannot speak up for fear of the consequences or social awkwardness, a company’s whistle-blower policy is a boon. It provides a mechanism for employees to approach the management without fear or favour. Almost all companies nowadays have a panel exclusively to address complaints. These consist of people in specific capacities, from seniors in each department to HR, even the CEO. Since companies ensure confidentiality, the employee using the platform need not worry that his job is on the line.
Many times, however, it’s also misused to air personal grievances.
Speak up: The policies work as a control mechanism
Why it works
“People reach out,” says Ranjan Das, director, human resources, Henkel India—a company which operates with brands and technologies in the areas of laundry and home care, adhesive and cosmetics/toiletries. “When we started this policy in 2010, there was a spurt in complaints—now we get one complaint in two months.”
The company uses a global “speak-up” hotline which can be accessed through mail or a toll-free number, and is managed by a third party to ensure confidentiality and objectivity. Employees are encouraged to either write or call in and convey complaints, issues and protests. “Most often people don’t disclose their names and complain through fictitious email IDs, or through a phone-in service without identifying themselves,” Das says.
Candidates are told about the outcome of the investigation through the channel they used to complain. When the query acts as a trigger for a change in policy, the company puts this up on noticeboards without disclosing the identity of the person. Many companies say these policies work because they ensure instant action for the complainant. “No one has the right to be abusive,” says Divakar Kaza, president, human resource development, Lupin Ltd, Mumbai. “Companies are not just about business and profits. Any system needs checks and balances.”
Lupin Ltd, a pharmaceutical company, decided to introduce a whistle-blower policy two years ago—it was growing, and felt the need for a uniform code understood by employees worldwide. “What is important is the message to our employees: We care about you, we are with you and you are not at the mercy of anyone in the organization,” says Kaza. Kaza hopes this policy has resulted in a vigilant employee force where everyone is accountable. He believes this transparency helps companies to redefine processes and make improvements.
Wipro Ltd, which sells everything from soaps to software services, has had the policy, Ombuds Process, since April 2003. An ombudsperson is a person selected by the company to resolve complaints and grievances. Some of Wipro’s business units also have Ombuds leaders—a set of employees designated as ombudspersons. All of them are aligned with the corporate ombudsperson, who reports to the chairman of the board’s audit committee.
Alexis Samuel, chief risk officer and corporate ombudsperson, Wipro, Bangalore, says, “In 2012, we broadened our concerns to include vendors, partners and the public at large, who have access to Wipro Ombuds Process via a global, multilingual 24x7 hotline facility along with a Web interface (operated through an independent third party).” Concerns, says Samuel, can be shared through telephone, fax, email, etc., with a higher authority: Employees and vendors, partners and the public at large can choose to reveal their identity or remain anonymous, except in some European countries where it is not permitted by law. Action taken can range from counselling letters, warnings and suspension of salary to suspension of progression for one-two years, even dismissal.
When it’s misused
Companies were unwilling to give specific examples, but they do say that in most cases, less serious or trivial complaints come in too. HR heads say many cases relate to personal grievances—subjective problems which may be merely a matter of perception. “The whistle-blower policy, we have found, is sometimes used to air grievances regarding work timings or work pressures, problems with supervisors,” says Das. “However, no matter the nature of the complaint, each one is investigated and complaints can be resolved once a misunderstanding is figured out.”
Kaza says employees sometimes register grievances that are not clearly articulated. For instance, a complaint that says some employees in the purchase department are “looting” company assets or funds. This accusation indicates some sort of fraudulent activity but gives no details. “When we receive such a complaint, we respond and ask for specific details. Around 10-15% of the complaints are bogus. We once got a resumé from a person on the whistle-blower complaint site! One has to take this kind of misuse in one’s stride,” he adds.
And then there’s the issue of how much importance should be accorded to complaints made through fake identities. Some organizations make it clear to employees that certain incidents reported make it important for the complainant’s identity to be established. HR heads believe that validates the authenticity of the accusation. Adds Meenakshi Roy, senior vice-president, HR, Reliance Broadcast Network Ltd, Mumbai: “It takes twice the effort and time to validate the complaint (so it is important to know who the complainant is). While the identity is revealed (to the people handling the complaint), we do not ever disclose it (in an open platform or to the person against whom the complaint is made). We get cases ranging from simple people management issues to serious problems like financial fraud. With business in 45 cities in India, this policy works as a deterrent to malpractice and misconduct and ensures that every employee has a platform to voice grievances.”
Anirudh Dhoot, director of Videocon Group and president of the Consumer Electronics and Appliances Manufacturers Association (Ceama), says, “Fortunately, there has not been any serious case found as of now (in our company), but this policy works as a control mechanism for us.”
Sometimes, just knowing someone is watching is enough.
Out in the open
We look at the whistle-blowing policies of some companies.
• At Videocon Industries Ltd, the compliance officer is responsible for investigating and resolving all reported complaints and allegations concerning violations of the whistle-blower policy and, at his discretion, advises the executive director and/or the audit committee. The compliance officer has direct access to the audit committee of the board of directors and is required to report to the audit committee at least annually on compliance activity.
• At Reliance Broadcast Network Ltd, grievances go through a disciplinary committee comprising executives, functional heads and business heads. Besides this, any employee can write to the CEO or call him up with regard to any people-centric issue.
• At Henkel India, all submissions go to the chief compliance officer of the Henkel group in Germany, who addresses every submission and reverts to the individual with the feedback/request for additional information. It is then sent to the HR department in the country where the grievance has come from for clarification and investigation.
• At Wipro, complaints go to the corporate ombudsperson. Some of Wipro’s business units also have Ombuds leaders—a set of employees designated as ombudspersons.
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