Public servants feel safer to report misconduct while working from home, according to head of whistleblowing service

By Shannon Jenkins

August 21, 2020


While the coronavirus pandemic has placed immense pressure on public servants across jurisdictions, the move to working from home has given many employees the confidence to speak out about wrongdoing, according to Nathan Luker, CEO of whistleblowing service Your Call.

The organisation provides services to private and public sector clients, including about 150 councils and a number of federal and state agencies. Early on in the pandemic, the organisation received numerous allegations of public servants stealing personal protective equipment.

“We had some public servants who were in charge of PPE gear, and a report was made to us because they allegedly siphoned off a quarter of a delivery of PPE gear and took it home and gave it to their family and their parents,” he told The Mandarin.

“You know, a couple of boxes … masks, gloves, alcohol wipes and all that jazz. And that happened a lot, where people were in positions dealing with materials like that, and due to fear, and rationalisation and opportunity, they used their position to make personal gain, but in the way of protecting their families. It’s complex, it’s not easy.”

He referred to the Fraud Triangle model, which explains how the presence of three elements — pressure, rationalisation and opportunity — can lead to fraud.

Current pressures for public servants could include increased public scrutiny or a financial need. An example of rationalisation may be a person’s perception that they have a “thankless job”, and deserve a reward. Opportunities could include being the only person in the office while everyone else is at home, or, as above, having access to PPE.

While the pressure of COVID-19 may have caused an increase in cases of wrongdoing, it has also presented an opportunity where employees have felt more comfortable with speaking out.

For example, during COVID-19, Luker’s organisation has received a spike in reports of bullying, with most reports relating to historic bullying that was previously under-reported.

“Because people are working from home, they’re not seeing their managers and those triggers that cause fear, [which normally lead to] underreporting. So they feel safer to make a report when they’re not in the office every day, they don’t need to see that manager every day,” he said.

“So there’s a willingness to report due to barriers to reporting being removed as a byproduct of working from home.”

Whistleblower reports have spiked by about 20% in recent months, which Luker puts down to “people feeling calmer at home, less threatened”, but also due to the pressures of COVID-19.

“It makes sense as well in the public sector why more bullying and harassment allegations are made because people are in a high stress state personally, their personal life is being shaken up as well. Plus they’ve got the economic impacts, impacts on their work, their families are impacted,” he said.

“Instead of just one or two people in that organisation having complications outside of work and causing concerns and stresses that kind of dilute themselves in the workplace, you’ve got nearly 100% of workers coming in with out-of-work stresses that are hitting on health, social and economic fronts … it makes sense that people are making more reports because their trigger points are more sensitive.

Read more: Working from home has increased cyber risks — but a punitive approach to security can be counter-productive

In recent months Your Call has also received whistleblowing tip offs in the areas of oversight and compliance, inappropriate behaviour during meetings and social activities, and stress-related incidents, Luker noted.

“Working from home has provided new challenges for employers and organisations in terms of oversight, there’s that lack of oversight in terms of how people are acting with security, with devices, with conflicts of interest, with budget approvals, expenditure approvals etc, and adherence to policies and procedures,” he said.

“People are feeling as though they’re being pushed too hard in certain examples, in high stress environments, there could potentially be pay cuts as well, and remuneration impacts, but the expectation for productivity remains the same, or higher.

“COVID also creates silos in an organisation, because from a cultural perspective people are meeting up in smaller groups socially — if it all — so they feel excluded, so it’s a bit of a melting pot.”

Agency leaders and the HR team can prevent these issues in three ways, Luker says:

  1. Set a strategy of how the organisation will handle working from home by adapting existing policies and procedures for the remote working setting. Doing this could identify any security issues, organisational weak spots, and things that need to be changed in the short and long term.
  2. Set up employees for success. This could involve considering ways to support employee wellbeing, cultivating healthy relationships when working remotely, ensuring staff have a safe workspace at home, and establishing protocols on how to effectively do the job from home.
  3. Ensure that there’s proper oversight for these new elements. Leaders must think about ways to make sure that people are being compliant while working remotely.

Read more: How local and state governments can prevent corruption during emergencies


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