How can we protect whistleblowers? New study offers a roadmap

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  • Published Date: 06 March 2020

By Michael Macaulay

Organisations value internal reporting as a valuable source of information but struggle to support employees who speak up in practice.

I have been part of the biggest study of whistleblowing ever undertaken and our report, entitled Clean as A Whistle, outlines a five-point road map for organisations and legislators that recognises the value of whistleblowing and encourages and protects those who do it.

Whistleblowing is a vital pillar in the integrity, governance and compliance systems of every organisation, and healthy, corruption-free institutions across society as a whole.

Australia has recently amended legislation to strengthen protection of whistleblowers, and New Zealand is currently also updating its own laws. The Australian changes recognise the need for organisations to support whistleblowing, and that some whistleblowers need to go outside their organisation to have their concerns listened to. This requires a ‘three-tier’ approach that protects whistleblowers who report concerns to outside regulators or to the public through the media or parliament.

The Clean as A Whistle report is the result of the project: Whistling While They Work 2: Improving managerial responses to whistleblowing in public and private sector organisations. Led by Professor A. J. Brown of Griffith University, the project analysed policies from 699 public, private and not-for-profit organisations, and drew on the experiences of over 17,000 respondents across 46 different agencies across Australia and New Zealand. It is the first study of its kind to use both multi-sectoral and multi-jurisdictional approaches.

The research dispels some long-held myths, not least around the value of internal reporting. Although a common perception is that speaking up is not acted upon, for example, the new research shows that it was valued as the most important form of information. Senior managers rank employee reports above and beyond internal audits and routine controls. Further, 89% of public and 94% of private sector respondents agreed it was ‘in the best interest of the organisation when an employee reports wrongdoing’.

But despite this, large numbers of employees continue to suffer for reporting, and many organisations continue to be embarrassed by revelations about their poor responses – ranging from ‘too little, too late’, to active suppression, to shooting the messenger, including by accident or default.

The need to offer firmer protections for those who report misconduct at work has never been stronger. Across the public and private sectors, agencies continue to wrestle with the best ways to offer safe harbour for those who need to speak up.

Practical and emotional support the key for organisations

For organisations the key focus is having strong policies in place before they are required, so reporters have confidence that there is a process to be followed, and management can quickly move to investigate claims while supporting the whistleblower.

The three key action areas for organisations are:

  1. Recognising and assessing whistleblower disclosures not only is it essential to have a clear reporting policy, which shows: how reporting will be investigated; what types of risk assessment will be undertaken for those who report misconduct; what triage is available to process reports efficiently and fairly; and what training will be provided for those who work in the area.
  2. Support and protect reporters All leaders need to develop positive ethical environments, and part of this is proactive leadership to ensure that reporters are robustly supported, with absolute confidentiality, and that explicit support plans are in place, including support by people outside a whistleblower’s chain of management, and quick, professional and independent investigations into a whistleblower’s claims to ensure their faith in the process.
  3. Roles, responsibilities and oversight agencies need to develop integrated communication and governance strategies, and create oversight frameworks that can provide objectivity and can learn from reporting experiences.

Support for whistleblowers can take many forms: in addition to protecting a reporter’s confidentiality, managing situations where confidentiality is unlikely or impossible, and intervening directly to deal with potential conflicts, organisations have a responsibility to ensure “soft” forms of support. This includes basic things like information – it was a major concern that, half of all employee reporters either did not know if their report was investigated, or believed that it wasn’t.

It may also require emotional support to overcome the effects of stress and risks of isolation, or of fears of reprisal that may or may not be real. Practical support may mean adjustments in work duties or location, time off, conflict resolution, or access to legal and other services, in addition to the types of interventions in the last section. Where support is provided by the organisation, especially in the form of emotional support from managers, it becomes one of the strongest predictors that a whistleblower will feel well treated.

Stronger regulation to protect whistleblowers

The two key action areas for policy makers are:

  1. The regulatory role: meeting new challenges law reform in Australia and New Zealand needs to bring whistleblowing protections up to a higher standard.
  2. Public interest: respecting whistleblowing’s third tier, stronger legislative protection is required for journalists’ ability to use whistleblower information and, fundamentally, there needs to be simplified, consistent, and workable criteria for when a whistleblower can go public and remain protected.

The report could not be timelier in light of continuing protected disclosures reform across Australia and New Zealand. As of July 2019, all corporate bodies in Australia became subject to more robust whistleblower protection regulations; whilst in New Zealand, reform of the protected Disclosures Act, has recently been through public consultation.

The need for protection is high because without it, a whistleblower may be directly exposed to criminal or civil liability for unauthorised disclosure, as well as risks of reputational damage, and heightened risk of direct reprisal due to the reputational threat posed to the organisation or its leaders. However, it is also high because the vast bulk of whistleblowers only go public after having first disclosed internally and experienced inaction or adverse treatment.

While few whistleblowers will need these protections, their existence sends a strong message to all, that whistleblowing is an important part of healthy governance, and that whistleblowers should, and will, be supported.

Michael Macaulay is Professor of Public Administration at the Wellington School of Business and Government, VUW, and is the New Zealand lead for Whistling While They Work 2.

Our full suite of research can be accessed here