June 25, 2021

Record-Setting Whistleblower Run: How Companies Can Prepare

Last month, Lynn blogged that the SEC was nearing the $1 billion mark for lifetime awards under its whistleblower program. This Arnold & Porter memo says that FY 2021 will also set a record of its own: with more than 3 months left, the Commission has awarded $370 million, compared to the $175 million record from last year. The memo was published prior to the SEC’s latest announcements this week of a $5.3 million award and a $1 million award.

The memo delves in to how the whistleblower program works – and says that recent orders may show a willingness to grant more awards. There has also been a huge increase in the number of tips lately, which may lead to more investigations. The memo says that companies can prepare for the possibility of whistleblower activity by considering:

Risk Assessments. Consider conducting risk assessments related to internal reporting structures to make sure that all reports—not just those going to an internal hotline—are captured, triaged, and investigated if appropriate. Use internal whistleblower information to get ahead of a potential problem with the regulators or law enforcement. Companies that are able to conduct thorough internal investigations showing a clear, robust response to an internal tip will be better able to effectively self-correct and have a defensible position if regulators or law enforcement get involved.

Annual Training. Consider if annual training is appropriately robust and targeted to middle management to ensure that tips received outside of the employee hotline or formal reporting mechanisms are identified, logged, and triaged. This is particularly important given that 81% of SEC whistleblower awardees reported their concerns internally, including in many instances to their direct supervisor, before or at the same time as reporting to the Commission. If all tips are not identified and centrally reviewed, it is a lost opportunity for a company to self-correct an issue.

Internal Reporting Mechanisms in a Post-Covid World. As more companies are pivoting back to an in-person workforce, consider a refresh on internal reporting mechanisms as well as related training. Record-breaking numbers of tips were reported to the SEC during the pandemic. This may have been because of a breakdown in internal reporting mechanisms for a remote workforce. Consider a fresh internal reporting campaign to refocus a returning workforce, whether it be full-time in the office, continuing remote, or some hybrid. The statistics show that the current mechanisms for internal reporting may not be effective anymore.

Anti-Retaliation Policies and Training. Ensure that whistleblower anti-retaliation polices and training are up-to-date. Now is the time for companies to review anti-retaliation policies to ensure they are clear and concise. Annual training should be conducted to ensure that everyone understands what retaliation is and knows the steps that can and cannot be taken once someone reports internally or to the government. Zero tolerance policies that are advertised to the workforce can help employees get comfortable reporting internally rather than straight to the governmental authorities.

Domestic and International Policies. Review and update both domestic and international policies. In light of the purported award in the PAC case, companies should be aware that whistleblower tips may arise from and with respect to any part of their business, including activity overseas. In FY 2020, 11% of whistleblower submissions to the Commission were submitted from non-US countries. Since the inception of the program, the SEC has received tips from whistleblowers in 130 countries. Properly and consistently implemented robust internal reporting mechanisms and whistleblower policies provides an additional safeguard for compliance with US and international laws and regulations.

Liz Dunshee