Whistle while you work: The truth about whistleblowing Down Under

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Griffith University’s three year research project into the nature of whistleblowing across the public and private sectors in New Zealand and Australia offers starting insight into the nature of whistleblowing Down Under.  

The related research document, Whistleblowing: New rules, new policies, new vision [pdf] draws on interviews with 46 public, private and not-for-profit sector organisations in Australia and New Zealand, with a total of 17,778 individual responses collected. It’s one of the world’s largest studies into whistleblowing, and the first large-scale project to focus on management of whistleblowing across business and government.

Let’s take a look at some of the key findings of the document:

Public vs Private

According to the research, there is a surprising similarity in the basic nature and dynamics of whistleblowing between public and private sector respondents. 

“Reporting rates in the public sector organisations were only slightly higher than in the private sector (74% vs 69%), neither sector used external reporting paths to a great degree, and both sectors only used a mixture of reporting paths when there was a mixture of wrongdoing types.”

“This underscores that questions of how best to manage whistleblowing are not likely to be answered by the sector involved but by organisational and management dynamics that cut across all types of organisations.”

Whistleblowing works…

According to the research, reporting is widely supported. Contrary to many stereotypes, reporting led to positive investigation outcomes and organisational changes and reforms in a large proportion of cases.

…but rarely for the whistleblower themselves

Outcomes for whistleblowers are, however, far less positive. 

“Reporters responded that they were treated badly by their management or colleagues in 42 per cent of cases. Public sector whistleblowers were mistreated in almost exactly the same proportions as recorded a decade ago by the first WWTW project. Reporters experienced negative repercussions in up to 81 percent of cases.

Recognising ‘mixed’ public interest and grievance wrongdoing types, and the significance of ‘collateral’ or informal detrimental effects (not just reprisals) seems key to achieving better reporter outcomes.

AU vs NZ

Results reveal little comparatively little variation in terms of the prevalence of different forms

of wrongdoing observed between Australian and New Zealand public sector jurisdictions, although New Zealand respondents did report the prevalence of workplace bullying at a slightly higher rate.

  • Despite some differences in observation, there were no differences in the levels of reporting.
  • NZ Local reported lower levels of immediate manager support compared to Australian Local jurisdictions and NZ National reported lower Emotional support compares to both Australian State and Commonwealth jurisdictions.
  • There was lower awareness of whistleblowing policies and procedures in New Zealand agencies, with training less likely to play a role, compared to team meetings.

Organisational policies and whistleblower treatment

The presence or absence of particular types of official policies and procedures – at least as these are reported by organisations – do not in themselves affect whistleblower outcomes. There seems to be no clear, direct relationship between the official policies that organisations claim to have, and the organisational support that individuals who report wrongdoing actually experience.

  • Whistleblowers in organisations with what might be considered ‘weaker’ official policies were no less likely to receive most kinds of support than those in organisations who reported that they had ‘stronger’ policies. 
  • A more important organisational factor in explaining lower repercussions was whether whistleblowers reported within their organisations or pursued their claims externally. Regardless of official policies and procedures, if wrongdoing reports are properly dealt with ‘in house’ by organisations, then negative repercussions for whistleblowers appear to be reduced.
  • Supervisory managers are, in the majority of circumstances, the first and most important point of disclosure for employees who perceive any wrongdoing,” says the report. “However, the ability of employees to raise issues with their supervisors is often compromised.” 

Preventing detrimental whistleblowing outcomes

Risk factors for higher reporter repercussions and management mistreatment can now be more readily identified, says the report:

  • 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 (‘extent of wrongdoing’).

Risk assessment

“Risk assessment is far less frequent than suggested by many organisations’ claims.” 

  • Less than 10 percent 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, steps were taken to proactively manage problems in only 5.5% of reporter cases and 18.4% of managed cases, but this rose to 49.3% of reporter cases and 78% of managed cases where 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.

Hotlines

Private sector organisations were more likely than public sector to have an external hotline company, but less likely to reference external regulatory agencies as reporting avenues for employees (45% of private sector organisations against 95% of public sector organisations), or to refer to any protection for employees if it was necessary for them to go to the media (4% of private sector organisations against 24% of public sector organisations).

What else makes a difference? 

“A systematic examination of the role organisational factors play in shaping whistleblowing processes embedded within organisations and the degree to which these, in turn, influence reporter and organisational outcomes,” says the report. 

  • All the whistleblowing processes experienced by reporters had a direct influence to some degree on the reporter and organisational outcomes.
  • Investigation procedural justice and organisational interpersonal justice played a critical role in the majority of outcomes across the two case perspectives.
  • Ethical leadership, ethical role modelling by senior management, and ethical behavioural reinforcement played a significant positive role of shaping reporter repercussions and treatment.
  • Consistent indirect effects on outcomes for both own reporters and other managed reporters were found for ethical role modelling by senior management, ethical behavioural reinforcement, via organisational support provision and other processes.
  • Whistleblowing process awareness proved to have consistent strong significant influences on both the whistleblowing processes and outcomes

Read the whole document here

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