Whistleblower survey findings

Dr Michael Macaulay, Associate Dean Professional Education, Acting Director, MBA, Associate Professor (Public Management), Victoria University of Wellington Business School

Whistling While They Work 2 is the largest research project on whistleblowing ever undertaken. Public, private and not for profit sectors in New Zealand and Australia participated. It has helped conversations in New Zealand, around updating the Protected Disclosures Act. Furthermore, a number of Australian jurisdictions have directly cited the project in legislative changes. 

Late last year, the Business School published a wide series of reports and working papers under the title Whistleblowing: New rules, new policies, new vision, which are all freely available at http://www.whistlingwhiletheywork.edu.au/?p=941 .

The papers are based on survey responses from nearly 18,000 people. These ‘reporters’ included senior leaders, investigators, those in governance roles, and thousands of people who have reported workplace misconduct.


Our findings confirm some long-suspected concerns, but also bust a number of whistleblowing myths. Here are just a few:

  1. Whistleblowers are frequently perceived in a positive light.  Our work suggests that while whistleblowers may have been poorly perceived in the past, there is a significant shift in the way reporters are seen. Previous studies found that managers tended to view their own data as most important. We found now that internal reporting is considered the single most important source for bringing wrongdoing to light within any organisation. We need to explore further how strong this shift in thinking is. In the majority of cases, the concerns of reporters are taken seriously. We found that more than three-quarters of all reported cases were dealt with in some way. 
  2. Repercussion does not equal reprisal. Sadly but perhaps not unexpectedly, our work finds that the vast majority of reporters suffer adverse effects of reporting. Most common of these were the impacts of stress and emotional strain, which are present even when the reporting experience was positive.  The percentage of cases that led to harassment of reporters were substantially lower. These findings suggest that organisations need to give broader consideration to all reporting – not simply to try and mitigate direct reprisals.
  3. Risk assessment works.  Our findings confirm that ethical culture, and the ethical leadership of an organisation, have far more impact on the treatment of reporters than does the existence of rules and regulations.  That is not at all surprising.  Yet we also found that the single most effective institutional element that an organisation can use is risk assessment – for both reporters and agencies. With the focus on consequences of poor protective disclosure, risk assessments are more likely to lead to better outcomes for individuals and for organisations. They lead to better treatment of reporters and are more likely to bring about positive change.

As previously mentioned, our research also identified some less positive aspects.  Bullying and harassment remain the single most observed type of wrongdoing, more so in New Zealand than in any Australian jurisdiction. It also shows that in New Zealand there can be a reliance on informal channels rather than change requiring formal training and development, to counter workplace misconduct.

Opportunity to comment

Our research is now moving into the final phase of key respondent interviews.  We would love to talk to anyone, both people who have expertise in the area and others with experience, for comments on our findings.  Please contact me directly at michael.macaulay@vuw.ac.nz if you would like to comment. Our very final reports will be published this winter.

Michael Macaulay presents Whistleblowing Survey findings to Board meeting Nov 2018

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