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Whistleblowing: new regulations, new contexts, same old?

How can we better support whistleblowers and protect them from victimisation? Will new regulations change what we can hope for?  These were the themes of the CREW ( Centre for Research on Employment and Work) seminar: ‘Whistleblowing: new regulations, new contexts, same old?’ held at the University of Greenwich.

However good the law or company policies, there is too often a disconnect or, as one speaker put it, a ‘de-coupling between the talk and the walk’ when it comes to treatment after an individual has blown the whistle.

First speaker, Meghan Van Portfliet (Queen’s University Belfast) looked at how whistleblowers  become labelled after speaking up, and their different responses to accepting or rejecting such a label.  Meghan’s research considers the role of advocacy groups in tackling the stigmatisation of whistleblowers.  Groups (like Protect) can offer advice and support to whistleblowers on their journey and, crucially, challenge negative views and reinforce positive ones about the value of whistleblowers to society.

The value of whistleblowing was continued in the talk from Professor A J Brown from Griffith University, Brisbane. His research on attitudes of employees and managers shows a strong belief that whistleblowing is good for business – the most effective exposure of wrongdoing comes from the individuals working in an organisation.  But even when attitudes are so positive, there is a problem with outcomes for the whistleblowers themselves.  Professor Brown described the “collateral damage” of stress and isolation that comes with the whistleblowing journey.  Even when there is no intentional victimisation or “reprisal”, few organisations look at how to support the whistleblower after the disclosure has been made and the investigation closed.  Whistleblowers may still experience “repercussions” if their performance drops due to the collateral damage. There is clearly a need for organisations to track outcomes for whistleblowers over the longer term

In Australia, the first laws have been introduced making companies liable not just for having effective whistleblowing processes in place but with criminal and civil sanctions when a company fails to protect a whistleblower from detriment.  It is too soon to tell if the approach will work but imposing a duty to support, protect and prevent detrimental acts towards whistleblowers is an interesting idea.

Dr Eva Tsahuridu (RMIT University, Melbourne) and Dr Wim Vandekerckhove (University of Greenwich) are researching the tricky issue of what can we expect of professionals who spot wrongdoing.  Eva looked at the reporting duties on accountants in the light of new international guidance on suspected NOCLAR (non compliance with laws and regulations).  She posed the question : if it is not mandatory for a professional to disclose wrongdoing, how do we assess the behaviour of a professional who fails to make a disclosure but whose code nevertheless requires them to act in the public interest?

Finally, Pim Verschuuren at University of Lausanne explored the complexity of whistleblowing in the international sporting arena.  As individual athletes are rarely “employees” they often lack legal protection if they raise concerns about, for example, match fixing or doping.    The remoteness of the international body from the whistleblower is a problem.   There is a “cognitive dissonance” between values  espoused by the international body and the fear of reprisal and lack of protection on the ground.  Too often the whistleblowing processes at international level address only the means of making disclosures, not the ends of stopping the harm.

At Protect we’re working with a number of organisations who want to improve their practices and  benchmark the effectiveness of their whistleblowing policies and procedures. The CREW research findings confirm that victimisation and stigmatising of whistleblowers remains a huge problem, and potentially deters others from raising concerns.  Can your employer show that they do “walk the talk” when it comes to protecting whistleblowers from reprisal and repercussion?

By Interim Director of Policy and Legal, Elizabeth Gardiner