Yee Liu Williams
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09 June, 2014

The courage of whistleblowers

The Courage of Whistleblowers
The Courage of Whistleblowers
Whistleblowing is not for the faint-hearted. A riveted Greencoat Forum audience, (3 June 2014), listened to two courageous whistleblowers prepared to speak out against their organisations. Their stories illustrate the challenges whistleblowers face when trying to do the right thing. The problem is that the law can only take you so far. So what recourse of action and support is there for victims brave enough to blow the whistle?
The risks of blowing the whistle

Wendy Addison
Wendy Addison
When Wendy Addison exposed the ‘endemic fraud and corruption’ of the two CEOs in the publicly listed South African company LeisureNet (2000) she paid a heavy personal price. The CEOs were colleagues and friends in a company where she was the Group International Treasurer. Ousted from corporate and social life, an ‘outlier’, she is a rare breed with the moral fibre to speak out and report malpractice in the workplace. Wilfully refusing to turn a blind eye to corruption, Addison's whistleblowing story unfolds like a Hollywood movie; the chilling, sociopathic behaviour of ‘death threats via email and anonymous calls’ that forced her to uproot into ‘self-imposed exile’ in the UK.

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.

Genevieve Boast
Genevieve Boast
Addison drew attention to the collective need and shared obligation to each other and to humanity. Reflecting on the question of ‘moral conscience’, Addison said it was the knowledge and reasoning that ‘corruption is implicated in all of us at some stage or another’. She referred to the 'resilience of the human spirit' which sustains whistleblowers--and the need for forgiveness.
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.’ 

Cathy James
Cathy James
James presented the challenges for potential whistleblowers who contact PCaW’s confidential advice line - set up after the Clapham rail and Piper Alpha disasters. With constant scandals involving nurses, care homes, public transport systems, etc, people seek advice if they have witnessed malpractice in the workplace. She indicated that high profile public disasters might have been prevented if working environments had an ‘open policy’ on whistleblowing. Commenting on the inquiry and investigation into ‘what went wrong’, time and time again, evidence pointed to staff knowing about the problems but too scared to speak up.

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 -
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 -
(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 -
Founder of Beyond Human Stories is a life coach and organisational storyteller.  

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