GRAND RAPIDS — Many companies offer employees an anonymous way to report to management various problems, impropriety or other violations, often via a telephone hotline or a dedicated email account.
But a new startup company is offering workers a better way to blow the whistle, and in doing so, could allow businesses to get a better handle on potential issues before they spin out of control.
“We want companies to be out in front of the problem,” said Tom Coke, president at SafeWhistle LLC.
“If you’re (an automotive OEM), you want to know that people every step of the way in that supply chain are actually solving problems,” Coke said, noting that companies want employees to solve problems and not “sit around and wait for the lawsuit.”
To that end, SafeWhistle developed an encrypted, web-based platform for whistleblowers to anonymously report issues to management. The platform permanently stores the complaint and tracks it through investigation and resolution.
The company looks to serve clients in the manufacturing, financial services, health care, media and government sectors, among others.
SafeWhistle looks to provide companies a venue in which employees can feel safe to report problems. Employers could use the platform to establish a reporting process, or to supplant existing systems that may not be generating the desired results.
“Most employers don’t have that whistleblower solution, or their employees don’t feel comfortable engaging with it,” Coke said. “The feedback we’re getting is that it’s very necessary and needed.”
SafeWhistle presently has four paying customers who are in the manufacturing, health care, information technology and security industries, plus two more prospective clients who are piloting the platform.
In manufacturing, many OEMs and top-tier suppliers “to some extent” contractually require vendors to have a process in place for employees to confidentially report problems involving safety, quality or harassment, said attorney Bob Wolford, managing member at Miller, Johnson, Snell & Cummiskey PLC in Grand Rapids who represents suppliers in the automotive and manufacturing industries.
“How aggressively they enforce that is probably another area where they could be more effective,” Wolford said.
Employees who see a potential problem and want to report it to management may have some reluctance to using a general hotline or email “for fear that it may not be confidential” and that they could face reprisals, Wolford said. A platform or system that can alleviate that fear, assure confidentiality and help to create a culture where employees feel safe reporting problems “could become a best practice,” he said.
“Companies take issues of safety and employment-related things very seriously,” Wolford said. “There needs to be a safe and confidential and effective mechanism for employees to report concerns, especially with respect to production and safety concerns.
“Hopefully, most companies with respect to production and safety and employment issues have an open enough culture that people feel comfortable reporting these things, but obviously that’s not always the case.”
SafeWhistle recently relocated to Coke’s hometown of Grand Rapids and is presently seeking seed capital to support growth and to hire additional employees.
Jay Patel, the owner of AmTech Electronics Inc., a Detroit-area circuitry manufacturer, developed the SafeWhistle platform and formed the company in 2017. He and Coke connected through their involvement in City Side Ventures LLC, a Birmingham-based investment firm. Coke joined the company in January as president.
In promoting SafeWhistle, Coke cites frequent requirements manufacturing OEMs often have in place for their suppliers to maintain a mechanism for employees to report problems and a process to have them addressed. He also points to the need for issues identified by employees on the shop floor or in the office to get reported, reviewed, acted on and, if needed, moved up the chain and addressed by senior management before they become a major liability or public embarrassment.
“We’d like to go into their environment and make this processes more efficient,” Coke said. “The idea is to shift things from damage control to damage prevention.”
Coke points to General Motors’ problem five years ago with ignition springs or the Volkswagen emission scandal as demonstrating the costs that companies can face financially and in terms of their battered reputations.
In an example of a proactive move, Ford Motor Co. last month said it was investigating the accuracy of vehicle emissions and fuel economy after “a handful of employees raised a concern through our Speak Up employee reporting channel regarding the analytical modeling.”
Having a strong mechanism and process in place for companies to report such problems needs to accompany a culture within a company that promotes transparency and accountability, Coke said.
He believes SafeWhistle can help companies create a better culture for employees to report problems that can become major issues or public embarrassments down the road.
“It actually makes a company a better corporate citizen,” he said.
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