Did I just blow the whistle?

When Brian Hood, the former company secretary at Note Printing Australia (NPA), a subsidiary of the Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA), raised concerns about wrongdoing in the organisation, he was not only met with resistance, but had to face harassment and intimidation at the hands of the perpetrators, ultimately losing his job and then face public denials of the existence of his whistleblowing by his former employer.

In this blog, Brian shares his views on the current whistleblowing culture in Australia, what he thinks needs to change to encourage whistleblowers to come forward, and how the research study being led by Griffith University along with other key organisations, including Governance Institute, can help change and improve things for the future.

On whistleblowing and what it stands for in Australia

I believe that there is great deal of reluctance in embracing corporate whistleblowing in Australia. With appropriate reporting channels and processes for potential whistleblowers missing, they remain exposed and unsupported. Honest people who may be inclined to speak up are deterred by this situation. Whistleblowing is still frowned upon in some instances and almost seems counter to the Australian culture of not ‘dobbing’ to authorities. The fact that Australia lags far behind the US, UK and other countries which have stronger laws in place to protect and encourage whistleblowers indicates a lack of resolve on the part of Australia’s law makers.

Corporate Australia needs to embrace a cultural change to turn things around. Organisations and their senior people need to realise that whistleblowers are well placed to know what is going on in an organisation, since auditors alone cannot find everything, and that community sentiment against corporate wrongdoing is strengthening. Reports from whistleblowers must be taken more seriously if corporate wrongdoing is to be effectively addressed.

Politicians and law makers have so far made only half-hearted efforts in this area. What they offer is lip service. The opportunity to put proper whistleblowing processes in place, establish a national anti-corruption agency or strengthen protection laws has so far been bypassed.

Though recent cases of whistleblowing from the banking industry have generated some respect from the community, it seems there is a long way to go before whistleblowing is accepted by organisations and governments and given the encouragement and protection it deserves.

On what a whistle blower has to go through upon reporting

Whistleblowers often feel isolated and unsupported when they prepare to report wrongdoing. There is great uncertainty in a whistleblower’s mind on where he/she needs to go (external or internal?), who he/she should turn to or who he/she can trust. Having no clear guidelines on whether a whistleblower should report a matter internally and go up the line, or go to an external body, only makes matters worse.

Without an independent body to turn to, or with weak internal processes within their own organisation, potential whistleblowers will be very mindful of taking what they perceive to be a great personal risk by reporting. No matter how they proceed with their reporting, whistleblowers must be well-prepared. Obtaining external legal advice is wise if the matter to be reported is serious and retaining relevant documents is a must.

On what can help fix the situation

Whistleblowers need to be encouraged to speak up and this can only happen if clear processes and practices are in place to ensure no harm will be done to them.

Setting up an independent, national body to investigate the matter is an important step in this direction. Secondly, current laws need to be strengthened and made consistent nationally, across both public and private sector, making it illegal for adverse action to be taken against whistleblowers.

Having strengthened laws is one vital step, but having an organisation which actually enforces the law, consistently and fearlessly, must be a priority and this is where ASIC is particularly weak. Up until now ASIC seemed disinterested in whistleblowing and did not see it as a part of their role to enforce the corporate law protections that are already in place for whistleblowing. They need to step up and take action.

Advice to other whistleblowers

I would certainly encourage people to speak up when they find serious wrongdoing in organisations; however, I would also caution them to be careful about who they trust and who they turn to. Making sure they have proper documentation and evidence to support their claims can go a long way in protecting whistleblowers and having the matter taken seriously.

On how the research project with Griffith University can help overcome the challenges

The research will provide much needed focus on the plight of whistleblowers. Having leading organisations partner this research not only adds weight behind its relevance, but will also encourage a huge response rate to the surveys. The research is focused on identifying current and potential best practices in organisational management of whistleblowing, based on comprehensive evidence drawn from organisations across Australian and New Zealand. This in turn will enable other organisations to adopt the best practices and not have to ‘reinvent the wheel’.

The research will be key in identifying gaps and areas for improvement, which politicians and policy makers will hopefully heed. 

Whistling While They Work 2

Whistling While They Work 2 is the world’s leading research into public interest whistleblowing.

The project is home to two major surveys for any organisation wanting to establish:

  • whether their whistleblowing policies meet current best practice
  • whether they are actually working, and if not, why not.

Find out how you can get involved at www.whistlingwhiletheywork.edu.au

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