15 July 2016

The dangers of blowing the whistle

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When most people hear the word “whistleblower”, they probably to think of this guy:

In case you don’t know, former CIA employee Edward Snowden made international headlines in 2013 when he leaked confidential documents from the National Security Agency (NSA). What he leaked revealed a number of surveillance and monitoring programs that many US citizens found disturbing. His actions sparked debate about national security, mass surveillance and personal privacy rights.”

According to Whistling While They Work, “whistleblowing is when employees or other members of organisations speak up about wrongdoing within or by the organisation, to people who can – or should – do something about it.” Snowden is arguably the highest profile whistleblower around, but he is certainly not the only one. In Australia, whistleblowers have made a real impact and pushed for serious change.

Dr Benjamin Koh, former Chief Medical Officer at Commonwealth Bank’s insurance division, CommInsure, was dismissed from the bank after discovering that legitimate insurance claims were not being paid. Dr Koh lost his job under what he called “farcical” circumstances, according to the ABC. However, his efforts have caused CBA to publicly respond to the claims and will hopefully lead to longlasting change.

Another former CBA employee, Jeff Morris, reported poor advice was being offered by members of the bank’s financial planning team. Since then, Jeff has repeatedly supported a Royal Commission into Australia’s big banks to investigate unethical behaviour. He will soon appear in a series of advertisements calling for a Royal Commission to finally be conducted, according to The Daily Telegraph.

It’s not hard to see that blowing the whistle puts people in a difficult situation. Snowden, Koh and Morris all faced harsh consequences and criticism for reporting worrying or unethical behaviour. However, it shouldn’t necessarily be that way. A lot of companies are putting measures in place to ensure employees aren’t unfairly punished for reporting inappropriate behaviour. Here are some examples:

Ethics hotline

Companies such as EY, Deloitte, Bank of Queensland and Virgin Australia utilise an “ethics hotline”. This is a website or phone line where employees can anonymously report unethical behaviour. Reports are then investigated by an independent third party to avoid possible conflicts of interest.

Whistleblower policies

Some of Australia’s largest employers including Westpac, Suncorp and Adelaide University employ a whistleblower policy to ensure appropriate protection is offered to those who report problematic information. A well-articulated policy helps employees know their rights and ensures whistleblowers aren’t unfairly penalised.

Ongoing research

“Whistling while they work” is the largest current research project into responses to whistleblowing. It is an initiative of Griffith University, with partners including CPA and the NSW Ombudsman. The project seeks to improve responses to whistleblowers. For more information about the project, visit their website.

Whistleblowing can be a real challenge for employers. It can cause a lot of unwanted negative attention and damage reputations irreparably. However, addressing unethical behaviour is vital, and there are some simple options available to do this more effectively.

Christian Berechree joined Akolade’s production team in May 2016. He has a Bachelor of Media and Music and a Masters in Journalism.

Christian is a musical theatre geek and a new dad, and he’ll happily spend hours telling you about either or both of those things.

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