Early intervention can reduce whistleblowers’ pain

New research reveals that 81 per cent of whistleblowers in Australia and New Zealand have faced repercussions for speaking up. And in at least 42 per cent of cases, they suffered harassment or direct adverse employment impacts.

The research captures work-in-progress lessons about the nature and performance of whistleblowing processes in 46 organisations in Australia and New Zealand. It is part of the Whistling While They Work 2 project, funded by the Australian Research Council and supported by 23 organisations, including the Governance Institute.

‘These results show us that, while not completely unavoidable, detrimental outcomes are still very much a reality for a worrying percentage of people who come forward against organisational misbehaviour,’ says Professor A J Brown, the project’s leader.

‘The broad conclusion is that, although both public and private companies support whistleblowing as a means of keeping themselves honest at a theoretical level, in practice, the people who inhabit these organisations are generally not so receptive to someone who comes forward with an issue.’

The study identifies the key risk factors that could lead to higher reporter repercussions and management mistreatment. They include:

  • Greater seniority of the alleged wrongdoer(s).
  • Extent of confidentiality — the more people who knew who raised the concern.
  • Type of wrongdoing — that is, a mix of public interest-type wrongdoing and personal or workplace grievances, as opposed to purely public interest types.
  • Wrongdoing perceived as more serious.
  • More people involved in the alleged wrongdoing or the ‘extent of wrongdoing’.

The study found that organisations that proactively used risk assessment to prevent detriment to the whistleblower were effective in doing so. In addition, early intervention created better perceptions of treatment and fewer instances of negative repercussions.

But the study also suggests that risk assessment is done far less frequently than claimed by many organisations. Less than 10 per cent of reporters indicated that any risk assessment took place, either when they first reported or later, when conflicts or problems arose.

When no risk assessment was conducted, the research reveals that steps were taken to proactively manage problems in only 5.5 per cent of reporter cases and 18.4 per cent of managed cases. However, this rose to 49.3 per cent of reporter cases and 78 per cent of managed cases when risks were assessed as soon as the report was made.

‘When organisations asses risk early, reporters perceive better treatment from both managers and colleagues, and face fewer repercussions — on average, half as much,’ the study’s report notes.

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