How this whistleblowing startup and women-led law firm are making remote workplaces safer during COVID-19, and beyond

Whistleblowing Lacey and Co team

The Lacey & Co team: Elizabeth Lacey, Morgan Forster, Eve Phyland and Janelle Ryan. Source: supplied.

The mass move to remote work during COVID-19 has brought into stark clarity the importance of communication within an organisation. But, when staff need to disclose misconduct, make a harassment complaint or expose fraudulent activity, funnily enough, Slack, Zoom and Gmail probably aren’t going to cut it.

This has prompted women-led workplace law firm Lacey & Co to join forces with whistleblowing startup Whispli to help businesses adopt practices to make the workplace safer, both during the pandemic afterwards.

With each business boasting their own whistleblowing apps, they’re each filling in the knowledge and skills gaps of the other, Lacey & Co head of strategy Janelle Ryan tells SmartCompany.

In June, Lacey & Co launched it Anon whistleblower disclosure platform, backed by the team’s legal expertise and intended to create a cycle of prevention within businesses.

Whispli provides an anonymous reporting and chat function, allowing employees to disclose concerns or simply ask questions through what founder Sylvain Mansotte describes as “an anonymous Whatsapp”.

Mansotte has also fast-tracked the startup’s Open Line tool, offering employers a line of communication with their teams during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Both businesses were essentially looking to achieve the same thing, but Whispli has typically approached the issue from a fraud and financial perspective, while Lacey & Co’s focus was on personal misconduct and “the emotionally challenging stuff”, Ryan says.

Mansotte himself uncovered a $20 million fraud back in 2012, and it was the negative experience around the incident that spurred him to launch Whispli.

“Nobody wakes up on a Monday morning wanting to be a whistleblower. It doesn’t bloody happen.” he explains.

“It’s too scary. It’s like driving a car for the first time … you have to take into consideration the entire environment, and there are lots of dangers that you’ve never realised before.”

Many of the women at Lacey & Co have also unfortunately been on the receiving end of harassment in the workplace, Ryan says, and there’s still stigma and shame around blowing the whistle on this kind of misconduct.

“It never ends well for the whistleblower.”

Squashing stigma

For Lacey & Co, the grand aim is to remove that stigma and to get people to see whistleblowers as an asset, rather than an annoyance.

Traditionally, the view of whistleblowers is that they’re “troublemakers”, Ryan says.

People raising concerns are seen as causing problems for an organisation, when they should be getting on with their jobs.

“That does nothing for culture, and if culture’s low, that does nothing for productivity,” she adds.

“And also, you don’t attract the best talent and you’re not going to retain the best talent, if you’ve got a workplace that isn’t open to these conversations.”

Lacey & Co founder and principal Elizabeth Lacey adds that “safe, diverse and engaged teams are so much more productive than the alternative”.

But, especially within large organisations, while that might be the case for some teams, it’s very unlikely that it’s the case throughout.

“It’s incredibly rare, if not non-existent, for the entirety of the organisation to be truly safe,” Lacey says.

“The benefits that flow from having a safe workplace are just so profound, with respect to your bottom line, but with respect to retention of workers, quality of work, all of those kinds of things shift when people feel safe,” she adds.

“What we want is a whole arsenal of tools in the kit, so that people are able to begin those conversations,” Lacey says.

“And if they need to begin those conversations in an anonymous way, then fine.”

In Mansotte’s experience, after going through his own whistleblowing process, the impact on the business was more than just the money lost.

“The impact was on productivity, on employee wellbeing, people leaving the company,” he says.

It wasn’t until a few years after he left the business in question that he twigged that this was partly because they didn’t have a suitable way for employees to raise their concerns. Sure, there was a hotline, an email inbox, and an ‘open-door policy’, he says, but none of these were trustworthy avenues of complaint.

The key is not to have a great whistleblowing platform, Mansotte says. Rather, it’s about opening an avenue of secure and anonymous communication that they’re comfortable using for anything from burnout to harassment to fraud.

“If it’s not something people can use and trust, then they’re not going to use it.”

Crisis situation

When the pandemic hit, “we realised more than ever that what we’re providing is going to be pretty critical for businesses, both now and going forward”, Ryan says.

When you’re working remotely, unless there are clear expectations laid out, for both team members and their leaders, “things are bound to go wrong”, Lacey explains.

There are new issues that employers didn’t have to factor in before, she notes.

“Family violence being the obvious one and the most deadly. It was a pandemic before COVID-19 was declared one,” she says.

Recently, the New South Wales court of appeal found an employer liable for the tragic death of an employee at the hands of her partner. That marks a significant shift in an employer’s responsibilities, which they’ve likely never had to consider before.

“Our family law system is still incredibly flawed. There’s still a lot of shame attached with making disclosures, and family violence isn’t a protected attribute under Australian discrimination laws,” Lacey explains.

“There are so many holes in the system there. And yet, an employer is liable.”

At the same time, things like bullying and sexual harassment don’t simply disappear just because the perpetrators and victims are physically distant.

“Quite the opposite”, Lacey says.

“There can be horrible manipulations of a crisis situation.”

Firstly, an abusive boss could easily claim an employee is ‘essential’, and must attend work in person, where a near-empty office leaves them especially vulnerable, Lacey says.

Mansotte adds that Whispli has seen complaints coming through around cyber bullying and online harassment.

“I’d love to say there’s no capacity for sexual harassment once we’re working more remotely,” Lacey says.

“But it’s an issue which we’ve still got an awfully long way to go to address.”

The right balance

While Mansotte has been working on Whispli for some eight years now, he also says the pandemic has suddenly made it glaringly obvious that the key is in trusted, and anonymous, conversations.

People are working from home, sharing office space with their partners and kids, and often is high-stress situations. At the same time, with many jobs in jeopardy, they don’t want to appear as the weak link in an organisation.

Whispli’s platform is designed to offer one platform for all kinds of disclosures, he explains.

People can discuss their own wellbeing, for example. Then, if they ever need to report something more traditionally classed as whistleblowing, the fear, shame and stigma is removed.

“When people engage in a trusted conversation they need to be on a level playing field,” he says.

COVID-19 may have exacerbated the need for communications and whistleblowing tools, but Mansotte suggests we’re at an inflection point. Workplaces will never go back to how they were pandemic, he says.

“Even if the virus was not there tomorrow, we all acknowledge that working from home was good, in a way. It was just a bit too much and too intense,” he explains.

“It’s about finding that right balance,” he adds.

Generally, most companies are embracing tech tools that enable communication and collaboration between employees. But, they also have to have tools to enable a safe workspace, whether employees are at home or in the office.

And for Mansotte, it’s important that those tools are just as user-friendly as the Slacks and Zooms of the world.

“In 2020, if you don’t have tools that are sexy to use … then people will not use them.”

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