• Transparency Networks

World Whistleblowers Day celebrates the courage of people who come forward to speak out

against wrongdoing or malpractice. In 2019, a group of NGOs working as part of the South East Europe Coalition created the day to raise global awareness in combating corruption. They advocate relentlessly for comprehensive whistleblower rights and stronger protection against retaliation.

Celebrated on June 23rd each year, World Whistleblowers Day shines a light on whistleblowers and their role in fighting corruption and maintaining national security. For their bravery, often at grave personal and professional risks, their stories deserve global recognition.

Whistleblowing: Then and Now

The term “whistleblower” goes back to 19th Century England, referring to policemen who used whistles to alert citizens about riots or crimes. Today, it has come to mean a person who exposes illegal or unethical activity within an organization. While the first whistleblowing legislation in America involved checking military excesses, the laws have expanded to include activities against the public interest, national security and company rules, as well as fraud and corruption.

The social perception of whistleblowers is ambiguous at best and verges on hostility at its worst. Despite putting their lives on the line for the greater good, some view them as traitors seeking personal glory.

Now more than ever, the world needs to come together to support anyone raising concerns about organizational or systemic wrongdoing. Legal protection for whistleblowing differs vastly from one country to the next. Most countries have virtually non-existent laws to safeguard whistleblowers.

Throughout history, whistleblower disclosures created tremendous impact and ensured accountability by organizations and governments. More recently, individuals have come forward to disclose COVID-related unethical practices or blow the whistle on environmental crimes. Whistleblowers have also been instrumental in exposing the misuse of public funds.

Developments in Whistleblowing Protection Across the World

A recent European Union directive assures protection to over half a billion people for reporting wrongdoing at work. Member States of the EU have until October 2021 to translate these directives into laws – a step towards putting into effect a universal set of standards to guarantee protection for people who speak out. So far, only seven of the twenty-seven countries have taken action.

Australia has directed private companies to “proactively” implement protections for whistleblowers. Eventually, the hope is for these directives to apply to government organizations as well.

“Whistleblower protection is only successful when civil society is fully engaged, keeping authorities accountable for their actions,” said Anna Myers, the Executive Director of WIN.

In a statement, The African Centre for Media and Information Literacy (AFRICMIL) has urged the Nigerian government to pass a whistleblower protection law. Although the country has a whistleblower policy, it does not contain any provisions for whistleblower protection. Other African countries such as Uganda, South Africa, and Ghana already have formal whistleblower protection laws.

Due to sustained efforts by a concerned international community, more people today are aware of the importance of whistleblowing. Since its inception in 2019, World Whistleblowing Day has slowly but steadily gained tremendous traction.

The COVID-19 pandemic has only reiterated the urgent need for transparency. Only through international cooperation can we ensure that institutions, both public and private, remain accountable during this crisis and beyond.

  • Transparency Networks

Public institutions and businesses today face greater scrutiny than ever before. Social media generates news by the minute while simultaneously functioning as platforms for individual voices to be heard. In a world where consumer loyalties shift drastically and the demand for transparency increases, businesses face the challenge of maintaining trust with their stakeholders.

Moreover, institutions must enable employees to voice concerns through formal and informal channels. Besides triggering a major world health crisis, COVID-19 created a string of new challenges in its wake. Evidence of whistleblowing reports by employees increased during the pandemic. Some cases referenced the pandemic directly, while others included abuse, fraud, or unsafe working conditions.

Now more than ever, employers need to implement transparent channels for fair hearings and responses to these reports. Not only should institutions create these spaces but step back and re-evaluate work culture and conduct that could encourage potential wrong-doing.

Acceptance and Openness

In effect, whistleblowing is part of the new normal and workplaces of the future. Leaders and organizations need to recognize and create the necessary provisions for it. Conversations around ethics and integrity can be challenging but are crucial to have nonetheless. The first signs of a red flag are when organizations do not have these dialogues regularly. Committing to an open culture is easy on paper - but an entirely different matter when it is time to walk the talk.

Treat Whistleblowers as Assets, not Liabilities

Whistleblowers often face the stigma of being labeled as ‘snitches.’ Flip the narrative instead. Build an active ‘speak up’ culture to encourage internal reporting while protecting confidentiality. Whistleblowers can be crucial sources of information on signs of organizational misconduct and the insidious abuse of power.

Test the Effectiveness of Workplace Mechanisms

Every organization has detailed reporting mechanisms and methods to build a work culture. However, very few businesses do a deep dive to test the effectiveness of these mechanisms. Consider analyzing existing reports and trends to arrive at the bigger picture. Look for patterns of serial complaints, silence, resignation patterns, or identify groups who might be most at-risk. What’s more, take a hard look at leadership and workplace hierarchies that could lead to abuse of power.

Transparent and Independent Reporting

Encourage people to speak up by creating independent review mechanisms to report unethical conduct by the leadership. Conducting independent investigations assures employees of action. Take concrete steps such as establishing unbiased special committees, independent legal counsel, and disseminating regular and transparent communication around the report.

Effective Responses to Whistleblower Complaints

Define and establish procedural requirements to address whistleblower complaints. While each case will differ from the next, the basic premise is an objective assessment, fairness, empathetic listening, and no retaliation. Document your findings and assess potential systemic issues every step of the way. Finally, have a contingency plan in place should matters go public or escalate further.

Creating the infrastructure and safe space to hear employee concerns is at the heart of healthy work culture and good leadership. Establishing internal capabilities for transparent policies and communication addresses risk and builds employee trust. These are fundamental starting points to anticipate and adapt to the needs of a changing world.