Whistleblowing – your ultimate protection

Brendon Wilson

by Brendon Wilson

TINZ Director

Writing for Employers and Manufacturers Association

BusinessPlus Magazine

‘Whistleblowing is an opportunity not a threat. Whistle-blowing about possible corruption is a sign of the greatest commitment and loyalty, not disloyalty; so employers need to provide channels for it and write it into their Code of Conduct.’ - Julie Read, CEO, Serious Fraud Office

More than ever, it’s hard to make a profit, it’s hard to keep cashflow positive through cyclic business needs, it’s hard to keep good staff who are loyal, committed and contributing all they can to your business potential. It’s harder still to recover when you are defrauded of funds, assets or IP.

Whistleblowing – Good or Bad?

One important protection policy which addresses all these issues is the concept of whistleblowing, a practice whose time has truly come. The days when someone is ‘letting the side down’ by raising a red flag about something or someone in the business, are truly gone. It is not disloyalty, but instead your ultimate protection against disloyalty and fraud.

Whistleblowing in the workplace has traditionally been seen as grizzling and divisive, and has often marked out the complainant for rough treatment by management and colleagues, but in recent years it is being seen in a totally different light. The view in enlightened companies and agencies is now to recognise the enormous value of empowering staff and management by saying ‘we trust you to tell us about any way we can do things better, and anything we are doing badly, and especially anything we need to know about to keep our business profitable and reputable’ - and then walking the talk.

Listening to and encouraging your people at all levels to express their concerns is just good sense, showing they are respected for their responsibility, integrity, loyalty, specialist knowledge and their ownership of their piece of your enterprise. To ignore them or discourage them, or to fail to support them when raising concerns, is turning your back on one of your greatest assets. Not listening to whistleblowers leads to greatly lessened loyalty, commitment and contribution by employees and management at all levels, and can lead to some of your most valued people considering moving to a better work culture elsewhere.

If you were being systematically defrauded of say a million dollars as was the case, for example, of Auckland Transport, you'd want to hear about it!

Whistleblowing in a healthy business culture

Two points immediately become obvious – whistleblowing cannot exist alone in a company culture, it needs to be a part of a robust inclusive environment which encourages staff participation and trust, and shares information and values across the organisation, sitting within your adoption of an effective integrity and compliance system, as part of your risk strategy.

Secondly it must be committed to and scrupulously upheld by the organisation’s governance, from Board, Chief Executive and all management, down through teams in every part of the business. Supporting whistleblowing is just another way to support a healthy company culture and ensure you reap the benefits you should expect from your strong integrity system:

  • your employees’ loyalty, commitment, pride and satisfaction
  • their more thoughtful, effective effort for you
  • keeping your valued staff longer, preventing their being lured to competitors
  • encouraging their skills, ideas and enthusiasm
  • improved efficiency and safety record
  • higher levels of compliance, and lower risk of your company acting illegally or corruptly
  • bringing to your attention practices and activities costing your company business or money
  • and importantly, as a deterrent to fraudulent action, as tempted staff realise their colleagues may suspect them and use the whistleblowing channel – and be listened to.

Peer attitude and expectation, and a culture of ethics and integrity are the strongest deterrents to fraudulent activity. Relying just on auditors as your only line of defence to prevent bribery and corruption is unrealistic and misses an opportunity to strengthen your company’s integrity culture.

Setting up whistleblowing and protective disclosure

Whistleblowing in practice is not hard to set up, as long as top management and the organisation’s culture are committed and integrity-based. It will involve:

  • Enabling any staff member to anonymously raise a concern on any subject through a website, phone or email blind message box, in a reporting mechanism enabling non-threatening assessment backed up by a protective disclosure policy that ensures a reassuring path for employees who have a question or even a niggling doubt
  • Appointment of a suitable senior manager to act as a non-judgemental confidential earpiece for those raising a concern
  • Assurance that there will be no retribution or ridicule, that matters investigated will be treated seriously and in confidence, and results (positive or negative) reported back to the complainant - a critical part of that is building a whistleblowing culture where staff can raise concerns without fear of reprisal.
  • Visibility of investigated matters to staff and management if they hold water - including always taking criminal behaviour to the Police or Serious Fraud Office - never sweep criminality under the carpet.

Secrecy and denial may seem a pragmatic course in the interests of reputation and business relationships, but in the long run your business will be given credit for your firm open stance if you take the matter seriously enough to advise external agencies and make the seriousness known to your staff. Don’t bequeath an ongoing chain of crime to another business owner by just severing the employment of staff involved in bribery or corruption.

Public panel on whistleblowing

Transparency International New Zealand (TINZ) with Victoria University of Wellington’s Institute of Governance and Policy Studies, recently held a public panel on whistleblowing ‘Hero or Traitor? The Role of Whistleblowing in Our Society’, featuring experts

  • Rebecca Rolls from the Serious Fraud Office
  • John Perham of Crimestoppers
  • and Dr Michael Macaulay of Victoria University’s IGPS, who is co-leading research on the largest formal whistleblowing research project in Australasia.

The panel discussed whistleblowing and its challenges in New Zealand, and how we can manage and strengthen whistleblowing in practice. Victoria University's recording of this informative event is available here.

Research Findings

Evident in ‘Whistling While They Work 2’, the Australasian research done by Dr Macaulay with Professor A.J Brown of Griffiths University, is that many grapple with the whistleblowing dilemma, but nevertheless whistleblowing is shown as essential to uncover corruption and preserve strong integrity systems.

Your Participation

This research is ongoing—would businesses who can take part and share their experiences, please get in touch with Dr Macaulay at Victoria University - Michael.Macaulay@vuw.ac.nz


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