With the disruption of COVID-19, whistleblowing has never been more important


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One whistleblower hotline has seen an uptick in calls thanks to the pandemic. While disclosure may be uncomfortable, it can give early warning of big problems, says whistleblowing expert Sally McDow.

With so many major decisions being made so quickly, the coronavirus pandemic has increased risks for public sector organisations.

The vast amounts of money flying around create opportunities for financial misuse, while resource constraints and the speed of the response mean it’s easy for health and safety considerations to be overlooked.

Sally McDow
Sally McDow

The pandemic started with a high-profile whistleblower incident in China, when Dr Li Wenliang was reprimanded by Wuhan authorities for speaking up about the emergence of a new disease, before falling victim to it himself.

This case “showed the importance of professionals who raise the alarm — as well as how vital it is for authorities to respond properly, and not simply by shooting the messenger,” says a recent open letter in support of whistleblowers signed by more than 50 organisations and experts worldwide.

But it’s not just China. Amazon fired staff protesting over safety in its warehouses, prompting one of its vice presidents to “quit in dismay” at the company’s decision. Closer to home, Qantas stood down an aircraft cleaner and union representative who raised concerns over cleaning standards in planes — an issue now under investigation by WorkSafe NSW.

Sally McDow, head of client advisory at Your Call, a provider of whistleblower programs, says her company’s whistleblowing hotline has been receiving reports related to COVID-19.

“We’ve seen health-related reports come in, people saying ‘I’m not being provided with enough PPE at the health care institution I work in’,” explains McDow, who had a legal career combatting money laundering and bribery before becoming a whistleblower herself.

“But we’ve also seen financial-related reports — ‘I’m concerned that there’s been a lack of compliance with existing financial delegations of authority or conflict of interest procedures in our organisation, or my manager is signing off on financial transactions without due authority or transparency’, et cetera.

“So yes, we’ve certainly seen an increase, and a link to the COVID crisis.”

It’s important for governments to be able to respond nimbly in a crisis, says McDow, and the rules around some approaches may need to be relaxed for a time.

“But we certainly do caution that public sector leaders should be cognisant that it’s a high-risk period for potentially inappropriate conduct to start occurring, with that lessening of transparency and those normal standards and procedures.”

This laxity can also cause longer term changes the culture of the organisation.

“There can be an assessment by staff of, ‘it’s fine, our leaders are role modelling that all standards are being thrown out the window right now, so we can cut corners, change our financial procedures, we don’t have to have the usual number of people signing things off’.”

Whistleblowing a useful tool

Internal mechanisms for staff to raise problems are incredibly valuable to organisations, says McDow.

“Whistleblower intel is consistently rated in Forbes surveys globally as the most effective process control in terms of preventing fraud.”

There are lots of other approaches to picking up problems — from standard business processes to software that scans for anomalies — but “those usual controls just aren’t as effective as people at the coalface, employees, whistleblowers, who can identify a pattern of behaviour, and that there’s something inappropriate going on”, she explains.

Having processes in place can mean problems are picked up long before they have the chance to become public and damage the organisation’s reputation.

“It’s proven in many cases to result in huge financial savings to companies when those issues are brought to their attention by a whistleblower, versus waiting for the issue to fester for years and years, and then it erupts and is on the front page of the paper, and the regulators are called in, and there are million dollar fines etc.

“If you can have someone internally who spots an issue five years before that happens, the financial benefits, and other benefits, are huge.”

So leaders should see internal whistleblowers as a positive, even if they create some headaches.

“If a whistleblower contacts your division, you need to think we’re lucky to some extent that they’ve approached us directly, because they could have gone straight to Tracey Grimshaw and A Current Affair.”

Talk about it

A common situation McDow sees is an organisation that set up a whistleblower system several years ago and hasn’t done much to promote it since then.

The policy document may be buried on a part of the internet that’s hard to find, or is too complex to be useable.

“As a result, because of lack of communication and training, staff just aren’t aware of what the policy is and does and how it should be used,” she says.

“Leadership can jump to incorrect conclusions and say, ‘we’ve had six years of zero reports, absolutely no problems to see here, it’s amazing’.”

So communication from leaders is important. An email or a post on the staff intranet explaining what the policy is and what channels are available can go a long way.

“Just raising the profile of the channel, and for staff to hear that leadership support the culture of speaking up.”

Bundled grievances

Around 75% of whistleblower complaints involve a workplace issue or grievance, says McDow.

Peter Mares
Peter Mares

This makes it complicated — often the whistleblowing is tangled up with personal motivations, notes Peter Mares, lead moderator at the Cranlana Centre for Ethical Leadership.

“The whistleblower themselves may not be a paragon of virtue. But that doesn’t mean the issue they’re blowing the whistle on isn’t a legitimate issue,” he argues.

Likewise, problems with established process means some people choose to do things the ‘wrong way’ and go to the media.

A key reason whistleblowers go to the media is doubt that the established internal process will lead anywhere, says Mares, who is also a journalist.

One example of a flawed process might be requiring a disclosure of alleged ministerial corruption be made to the Prime Minister’s Office.

A culture that sees criticism as disloyalty can also communicate that there’s no point in raising concerns internally.

“You can have a corporate culture which is more concerned with image and reputation than substance, that’s another risk,” he says.

“If staff are always going outside the organisation, if there’s constant leaking and going to the media, then leaders have to ask: ‘why aren’t they coming to me? Why aren’t they reporting up the chain? Why aren’t they using the mechanisms available? Clearly they don’t trust those mechanisms work, so I have a problem’.”

Critical friends

Better lines of communication throughout the organisation can also help deal with issues before they become scandals.

As a leader, it’s important to constantly test your views — especially in a time when big decisions are being made quickly.

A good way to ensure you are working as best you can is to “have critical others who you can test your judgment with”, says Mares.

Often it’s a person outside your immediate area, but the important thing is that it’s someone “who’s not going to bullshit you, who’s not going to just tell you what you want to hear, but is going to have a rigorous conversation with you”.

At the risk of sounding too much like the prime minister: get outside the bubble as much as you can.

“I worked for a while with a CEO who put their desk among their staff, so they would hear what was going on,” he says.

“You reduce the perceived hierarchy, you reduce the levels, so people feel they can approach you. You have regular conversations with members of staff at all levels, not just your immediate reports. So you make sure you take the time to have a conversation with the more junior people in the organisation to see how they’re going.

“Those are useful ways of keeping yourself in check. And of course that all gets harder the more pressure you’re under.”

Calls for reform

The law around public sector whistleblowers in Australia could be much improved, says McDow.

Establishing a whistleblower protection authority — one of the recommendations made by Transparency International and Griffith University to improve Australia’s whistleblowing regime — would be a great help, she thinks.

“It’s very difficult right now for whistleblowers, individuals in the public sector, to get assistance or know where to go,” she argues.

“Really all they can do is call up a law firm. We hear stories of whistleblowers calling law firms and they’re told, ‘we can only give you advice if you deposit $50,000 into our trust account’. These cases are new, they’re untested in Australia. “

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