The courage of whistleblowers
The risks of blowing the whistle
In a country like South Africa, corruption is rife and ‘whistleblowers are shot and killed and people die for less,’ stated Addison. With her livelihood gone and a career smeared like ‘mud that sticks’, survival meant living in squats and ‘begging on the streets of London’ for six months to support herself and her 12-year old son. She was eventually vindicated, and her two bosses were sentenced to jail after an eleven year battle in what was South Africa’s biggest corporate collapse.
For Genevieve Boast, ‘fear is false evidence appearing real’ as she displayed a reflective and cognitive behavioural perspective to her whistleblowing experience. As a stock control manager, Boast described the wave of fear when she uncovered ‘misplaced stock elements’ working for an international logistics company at that time. Should she keep quiet, tell the client, stop asking questions to secure her job and future? What should she do? She talked about the moral dilemma, the ‘subtle victimisation’ and that ‘dark period of her life’. Commenting on the risk and whether to look the other way and stay silent, Boast said: ‘integrity is not a single choice … it is something you decide to live every day’, which made her speak out. Impressed by her honesty, the broadcasting company they were supplying offered her a job—as their new Stock Integrity Manager.
Encouraging dissent in the workplace
Cathy James, Chief Executive of Public Concern at Work (PCaW) highlighted the paradox and need ‘to encourage dissent in the workplace’ as a sign of a healthy working culture. James declared: ‘There are lots of barriers to unpick … they think the law is the answer but it is the culture that is the answer.’
Mid-Staffordshire NHS Trust is not alone in its ’failure to listen’ and ignore concerns raised by its staff, she observed. For whistleblower, Helene Donnelly, recently honoured by the UK Government for speaking out over the serious failings in the A&E department, she had to endure ‘threats of violence’ and the daily fear for her own safety. James highlighted the recent research findings(1) with 74% of whistleblowers ignored when they raise a concern and that individuals only raise a concern once (44%) or twice at the most (39%) before giving up. Only the very persistent persevere beyond this point. More junior staff tend to be ignored by their employer where the more senior the higher the risk for dismissal.
The protection for whistleblowers in the UK has proven ineffective and tends to discourage speaking out in the workplace for ‘fear of reprisal’ and/or concern that they will not be listened to - or that nothing will be done. James added: ‘Organisations that can overcome such ‘culture of silence’ by encouraging ‘open whistleblowing’ are likely to benefit in a number of ways.
The law can only take you so far
Commenting on the need for organisations to do more and for society as a whole to ‘champion’ whistleblowing stories like Addison and Boast, James commented: ’PCaW help to put people into a position to make those difficult decisions … but at the end of the day it is their story, it is their choice … individuals have to make these decision for themselves.’
James stated that although there is agreement about the need for whistleblowing arrangements or policy in the workplace, the law does not make it mandatory and regulation can only take you so far. In 2013, the independent Whistleblowing Commission (established by PCaW) released its report on the ‘Effectiveness of Whistleblowing in the UK’. One of the key recommendations is the need for a Code of Practice to whistleblowing. The Code of Practice is in its early stages with a proposal for implementation by UK organisations and to be used as a basis for Government consultation and regulation. The Commission recommends that regulators use the code when assessing the whistleblowing arrangements, of those they regulate, and are given the authority to impose sanctions for non-compliance.
James concluded ‘Whistleblowers are a vital safety net in our society and can prevent and detect damage and disaster. We all need to listen to them.’
The Courage of Whistleblowers was co-hosted by TIGE (Trust Integrity in a Global Economy) and chaired by Mike Smith, Head of Business Programmes for Initiatives of Change UK.
Report and Photos by Yee Liu Williams
Wendy Addison - Speakout Speakup - http://www.speakout-speakup.org/#/
Wendy Addison is a critical thinker and international speaker on whistleblowing. She is a contributing member of UNCAC Coalition, the Corruption Research Group of the Surrey University and The International Whistleblowers Research Group. Wendy continues her battle against bribery and corruption and her support for whistleblowers worldwide.
Public Concern at Work - www.pcaw.org.uk
(1) The Whistleblowing Commission - ‘Report on the effectiveness of existing arrangements for workplace whistleblowing in the UK, November 2013.
Download Cathy James powerpoint presentation of slides 'Making whistleblowing work'.
Genevieve Boast - www.beyondhumanstories.com
Founder of Beyond Human Stories is a life coach and organisational storyteller.