• Dan Ray

Among other things, 2021 will go down in history as the year of whistle-blowers. There’s been a global surge in whistle-blowing claims - partly as a reaction to the pandemic and the emergence of a new, emboldened workforce. Employees spoke up against corporations like never before last year.

What is whistle-blowing?

Whistle-blowing refers to the practice of alerting others about unethical behavior. Recently, we’ve seen numerous cases where people have taken to social media, made videos, or spoken to the press to expose unlawful actions that go against the public interest.

Most whistle-blowers risk their jobs and lives in pursuit of the greater good. It’s not for the faint-hearted. Whistleblowing involves going up against global corporations, state institutions, or powerful individuals. In some cases, the government offers sizeable monetary rewards to encourage people to come forward with evidence of wrongdoing.

Whistle-blowing emerges as a new face of accountability

The pandemic was the biggest story in 2020. At the same time, whistle-blowers seemed to be in the news more than ever. Speaking truth to power, these individuals uncovered gross institutional mismanagement of the pandemic. They played a crucial role in disseminating unbiased reports around COVID-19.

Much before the world would learn of the virus, whistle-blowers in China were already issuing grave warnings about the dangers. Government officials retaliated by suspending their social media accounts. Some of them were arrested and never heard from again. In the US, whistleblower Rick Bright was a vocal critic of the government’s handling of the crisis.

Countless other whistle-blowers have risked their lives and jobs to expose illegal COVID-related issues - from inadequate safety measures to misappropriation of relief funds.

The pandemic highlighted the importance of whistle-blowers to a just society. It reinforced how tough it is to protect courageous individuals from retaliation or their claims to be taken seriously.

Other top stories of our times feature whistle-blowers as well. In a historical precedent, voices emerged from within the US police force to report on brutality, racial profiling, and other misconduct inside their ranks. Similarly, allegations of corruption against officials were made possible by whistle-blowers in the federal government.

Rumblings of a revolution

A revolution was also afoot in the hallowed portals of the corporate world. As work-from-home created new anxieties, it triggered a wave of whistle-blowing claims against employers.

In the US alone, the Securities and Exchange Commission received 6900 tips at the end of September 30. For perspective, that’s a 31% increase from the previous 12-month record. According to agency officials, the claims first gained traction in March when lockdowns compelled millions of people to transition from boardrooms to living rooms.

Work from home offers distance (both literal and otherwise) from office spaces. Researchers studying the motivation of whistle-blowers found that employees gained new perspectives when away from communal workplaces. More people began to critically examine employer practices. If found lacking, employees questioned whether staying dedicated to their workplace was worth it.

One of the first sectors to feel the impact was big tech. 2021 was a rude awakening to the sheer power that tech giants wield – more so, their indiscriminate abuse of power. The wake-up call the world needed was thanks to the actions of whistle-blowers.

As exposés go, few can compare in scale to what Frances Haugen managed to do. The ex-Facebook employee released the “Facebook Papers” - incriminating evidence showing how Facebook refused to act on criminal activity and false news on its platforms. Facebook allegedly allowed drug cartels free rein and ignored child trafficking on its platforms, among other allegations.

2021 was pivotal as a year of revelations where tech companies like Facebook underwent severe scrutiny. Thanks to whistle-blowers, the sheer scope of corporations’ questionable activities became clear as day. The impact of Haugen’s revelations will have far-reaching effects on accountability for corporates everywhere.

  • 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.