23 February 2015 by Philip Brennan
‘Whistleblower’ is a term I’m not particularly fond of. It can evoke negative connotations of school tell-tales and those informers we learned about in Irish history. Perhaps the term is part of the problem, but people generally often have very mixed emotions when it comes to considering whistleblowers. You would imaging they should be regarded positively. They are, after all, typically raising concerns about wrongdoing or malpractice that should be in the interest of fellow workers or indeed the public. But there is often that residual hesitation, that uncertainty…...why are they doing it? What’s motivating them? Is it personal? What’s in it for them? Are scores being settled? We search for reasons to think the worst. At minimum, we typically wait to see what the consensus view is before deciding which pigeon hole to put them in – hero or troublemaker?
Head in the sand
Too often employers also respond to whistleblowers with mixed emotion - almost as if they would prefer not to be told about the reported wrongdoing and, by not knowing, it might miraculously go away. Employee disclosures are often regarded as unwelcome news. Even before enactment of the Protected Disclosures Act recently many employers already maintained whistleblowing policies because this was expected from a governance perspective. But, in reality, little effort was made to promote the policy or facilitate the whistleblower.
But it’s line managers and fellow workers who often reserve the harshest treatment for whistleblowers. I’ve encountered some and read of many extreme cases where whistleblowers were viciously victimised and forced out of their organisations, often with much venom. I’ve seen cases where ‘group think' has taken over and the lone voice of the contrarian view or conscientious objector was hard, if not impossible, to hear. They’re made to prove their case and, as a result, many employees who have concerns about wrongdoing simply stay schtum. They choose to remain silent as their biggest fear is that they’ll be penalised by their line manager or employer and 'labelled' by their colleagues. They think it's just not worth it.
Alternatively, employees will go outside the organisation and, in frustration, leak details of the wrongdoing to the press. This leaves employers in the difficult position of dealing with problems in the glare of media and often regulatory attention.
Good for business
But media leaks can damage a business and to avoid these is just one reason why employers should take action to ensure they comply with the new Protected Disclosures Act. Rather than regarding it as a further imposition of employment law, employers should use it as an opportunity. Encouraging employees to raise concerns and protecting them when they do so is good, rather than bad, for business. It’s better to be alert and have an early warning process for possible problems rather than discovering them in several years’ time when it’s too late. Understanding the new legislation is important but facilitating employee disclosure and changing culture to regard whistleblowers as ‘good guys’ is a goal really worth pursuing, not just in business but also in the public service.
Listen to Philip Brennan's recent interview on The Sunday Business Show.
Learn more about the work of Raise a Concern.