Why every organization needs a Whistle Blower Hotline Program

The Whistleblower Hotline: What it is, how it works and what it says about your culture
We’re going to use Church and Ministry organizations as an example, but the principles in this article apply to any organization.

Here is how we feel about employment in churches and ministry organizations:

Employees don’t get paid a lot of money and there are few opportunities for advancement.  They choose to work at the church or within a ministry organization because they are emotionally and/or spiritually wedded to the setting. Having said this…we feel that they should be treated well while at work! Being treated well at work says a great deal about the organization’s culture.

Before we jump into “The Whistle Blower Hotline” and why every organization should have one, let’s talk about company culture.

Whistle Blower Program | HR Solutions On-Call

What is “culture”?  Every organization has its own way of doing things that influences virtually every aspect of working life — from how long coffee breaks are to how services are delivered. Thus, organizational culture refers to the underlying values, beliefs and principles that serve as a foundation for an organization’s management system, as well as the set of management practices and behaviors that both exemplify and reinforce those basic principles. These principles and practices endure because they have meaning for the members of an organization. They represent strategies for survival that have worked well in the past and that the members believe will work again in the future.

Some aspects of organizational culture, such as individual behavior and group norms, are very visible. “Working hard,” “dressing conservatively” or “acting friendly to first time visitors” are aspects of culture that are easy to observe. Other aspects of culture are harder to observe, since they represent the invisible assumptions, values and core beliefs. Examples of this less visible level of culture might be a belief in the importance of doing things right the first time, the power of collaboration rather than decisions being made by one person, being honest and ethical in all transactions, or being inclusive and accepting everyone.

The cultural system can not be easily seen or touched — yet it is there all the same. And more importantly, the people in the organization know it very well. The law of the culture often outweighs any other law. In many ministry organizations, it may be the strongest message of all.  It has been said that “culture eats strategy for lunch.”

Where does organizational cultures come from?  The ideas, behavior patterns and solutions that become embedded in a church’s culture can originate anywhere, from an individual or group, or at the bottom or top of the organization. Churches with strong cultures usually internalize ideas associated with a founder or other early leaders, and present leaders articulate them as a vision, a growth strategy or a philosophy.  Most often the present culture of the organization comes from those in power.

Organizations have cultures because the conditions needed for their creation are commonplace. Solutions that repeatedly appear to solve problems tend to become part of the culture. The longer the solution seems to work, the more deeply it becomes embedded in the culture.

Cultures can grow to be extremely strong, reinforced by common values, behavior patterns and practices, with many close connections between deeply held assumptions and visible concrete behaviors. When a culture is strong, it can have very powerful consequences.

Why is organizational culture important?   A clear understanding of organizational culture is important for all leaders because it influences the way that their organizations react to the changing demands of their environment. At any given time, the culture of an organization is strongly influenced by the past successes and past learnings about how to adapt and survive. As the ministries environment changes, leaders must constantly anticipate the necessary changes and actively monitor the relationship between the demands of the environment and the capabilities of the organization.

We are going to get to the Whistle Blower Hotline, what it is and how it works.   I promise. Lets move this to a concrete example that underscores the Church’s culture.    I could point to a moral failure example or two. When a senior pastor engages in an inappropriate relationship with an employee or volunteer we clearly have a moral failure.  Obviously this affair goes against the culture of fairness and ethics. It violates legal and doctrinal tenants too. Having a way for employees or stakeholders to “shine the light” on the moral failure so that appropriate action can be taken to investigate and rectify the situation is critically important.  This seems so obvious doesn’t it?

Let us look deeper.   Consider the church who had an opening because their Senior Pastor was retiring. The Elders felt that their church had stagnated a bit under the previous pastor.   This church then recruited an individual whom they knew to be an innovator and a builder. They did not share their feelings that the church was stagnating just a bit with their congregation or staff.

A bit of additional background might also help:  The Church was a big one…with 4,000 families. It was 125 years old institution in the community and had a stable staff of 90 who’s average length of employment was 20 plus years.  Some of the ministry heads had been employed at the church for as much as 35 years. Many ministries were operating within the church setting.

Their culture could be summed up in the following descriptors:

  • We do things correctly and we don’t make strategic and execution errors;
  • We look very carefully before we leap.
  • You have heard of the expression: ready aim and fire;  we use ready, aim, aim, aim, aim, then maybe fire;
  • We know what we are doing; and,
  • We value collaboration.

The new Senior Pastor was an innovator.  He had worked in small churches for 25 years.  He was a change agent with all the accouterments:  he was a fast thinker, a fast decider, he was agile, he made mid-course corrections,  if he was playing basketball he would be known as a bobber and a weaver.

His style and the culture he was superimposing onto his new church was actually antithetical to the existing culture of the church. He was pastoral in his personal style but also he knew what he wanted and was strong enough to impose his will on the senior people.  He wasn’t one to yell or threaten but he did let them know where the door was if they could not get on board with the new program. He was tearing at the fabric of the organization. People were resigning and hurting. The existing ministries were threatened.

Having a way for the staff and volunteers to vent upward sometimes without exposing themselves is a valid solution.  The government and courts have set up laws and rules to combat the abuse of people. Most states have a Human Rights Commission.  The federal government has the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. There are law like Sarbians -Oxley and the Fair Labor Standards Act.

We all know that Church and ministry employees are not going to pursue there options.  There is even a biblical or scriptural prohibition against taking a fellow believer to court.    Churches don’t usually have Human Resources Officers. There are few options for them if they are being abused or threatened.  Going back to the initial premise: Church employees don’t make much money and they don’t have many opportunities for advancement…but they should, at least be treated well.  What happens when they are not treated well? When the person who is abusing them is powerful or there is misbehavior with the resources of the Church and they know about it…what are they to do?  When there is abuse of children…when they are timid but know what is happening is wrong…what are they to do?

The Church can and should instigate a whistle blower program.  This is a program that provides an outside resource for all employees, volunteers and other stakeholders  to access as they see a need. If they suspect or if they know that something is wrong they place a call to an independent outside resources and Blow The Whistle.   They can report their suspicions or their facts.  These are actually treated as allegations.

What is an allegation?   An allegation is neither a fact nor a falsehood.  It is merely a statement made by a person. It needs to be examined and determined to be true or false.  It is like in baseball: the pitcher pitches the ball; the catcher catches the ball; the batter turns to the umpire and asks if the pitch was a strike or a ball.   The umpire determines. An allegation is like the pitched ball and (in our case, HR Solutions On Call) is the umpire.

The whistle blower program operates as follows:

1.)     The Church designated two or three persons as leaders.  The Business Office Manager, the head of the Elder Board, whomever they choose is designated and on record is notated in the whistle blower system.

2.)     The church then publishes a telephone number and tells its staff, volunteers, and other stakeholders that if they suspect any wrongdoing  they should call the number provided and they can make a report or advise the person who answered the phone regarding their concern.

3.)    The receiver (the person answering the whistle blower call) gathers the information and considers the matter reported.

4.)    The receiver then calls those who are designated by the church as in charge and lets that person know that a concern has been registered.  A conversation between the receiver ( who is a professional HR person) and the designated leader discussing the best next steps occurs.

5.)    The receiver gets back to the reporter and advises that a report has been made to someone in a leadership role.  The receiver tells the whistle blowers to see if the matter reported gets resolved. If yes, great! If not, the whistle blower will be advised to call back and report that the problem persists.

At step 4 the receiver should provide the designated leader with options and advise regarding what the appropriate next steps should be.   This is where professional advise can help the church protect itself legally and ethically. This is the real value to the church leader comes in.  The real value to the church, in general and the whistle blower specifically, is having some place to deposit their concerns that can actually make a difference.

One example of how the whistle blower program works might be illustrative.   HRS received a call from a young woman who was african american, and clearly agitated.   She called and advised that she was so angry she was crying. She advised that she was “sick to death of being called the N-word at work.”   She further advised that she was going to call the State’s Human Rights Commission and report the employer and the incident. She knew about the whistle blower program and knew she was obligated to call it (me) first.

I assured her that she did not and should not ever have to be subjected to being called names at work—especially that name.  I asked her for the details. She told me that a co-worker (she provided a name) called her that name on a regular basis. I asked her if that co-worker used that word with other employees or just with her.  She told me the names of two other employees who had been subjected to the racial slur. I took her name and phone number and assured her that I would get into the matter and I would absolutely get back with her soon.

I then called my contact at that organization (the owner) and after reminding him of my role advised him that I had received the call and explained the allegation.  I asked him if he knew the alleged perpetrator and if he was aware of the situation with the employee that called the hot line. He said that he was aware of an incident or two where the employee used the N-word with an employee.   When I told him of the allegation of the employee using the N-word with two other employees. He indicated that he was unaware of that expansion of the problem. He told me that he counseled the employee (the perpetrator) and told her not to do it again.  Obviously that did not work.

I suggested that he immediately speak to the two additional alleged victims and find out if they could confirm if the perpetrator of the other incident had also used the N-word with them.  I asked him to speak to these two employees and the original victim to see if the abuse was continuing. The owner indicated that all 4 of the employees were at work and he would call me back in 10 minutes.

I used the 10 minutes to call the Human Rights Commission in that state.  I got an employee on the phone and asked him what the Commission’s policy was if they investigated a similar allegation and found it to be factual.  He indicated that their policy was to fine the employer $10,000 per incident and issue a Right to Sue Letter to the victims. Wow.

The owner called me back and advised that all three of the employees told him that they had been called the N-word by this particular employee.  He asked me what he should do. I told him that I had spoken to the State’s Human Rights Commission and that he could be looking at a $30,000+ fine and a lawsuit from the victims.

Of course the owner went ballistic.   He was stunned and incredulous that one person calling another a name could cost him so much.   I assured him that his under-reaction to the situation was harmful. He was legally in trouble and his company’s culture was probably also “underwater.”   He asked me “what was a company culture?”

I told him that conversation should be saved for another day.  Now, I told him he could probably save all the costs and aggravation if he did two things:  The first thing he should do is immediately terminate the perpetrator. The second thing to do is to individually and sincerely apologize to each of the three victims.  He should tell them that he will never tolerate that word being used in his business and if they ever experience that again or if they knew anyone else at work using that language, he should be told immediately.

The owner asked about the Human Rights Commission.  He wondered if after he took these steps and if the 3 victims reported him anyway, what might happen.  I told him that it would take months after any report for the Commission to show up and conduct their investigation.  If that happened he should tell them that the minute he heard of the problem he took care of it by terminating the perpetrator and apologizing to the victims.  I assured him that when a leader takes care of his /her own problems the State is usually happy. The action anticipated by the Commission would probably be shut down.   It is only when the leader won’t take action that the State steps in.

I assured him that the matter should be concluded when he took the two steps that I recommended.  He assured me that he would follow the steps. I then got back on the phone with the employee that “blew the whistle” and told her what would happen.  I asked her to call me back if she wanted to and let me know what happened from her point of view.

This example is real.  The whistle blower program saved this leader a minimum of $30,000 plus the costs of a legal action, plus the bad PR that would have resulted when the mess went public.

Dr. Steve Cohen

Austin J. Holt

HR Solutions On-Call