Three good reasons to be grateful for whistleblowers
11 June 2019 at 8:31 am
Australia’s new whistleblower protection legislation means many charities might need to change their approach to managing disclosures. But some of us also might need to change how we think about whistleblowing, writes Oliver May.
Australia has just passed new whistleblower protection legislation, with significant implications for many Australian organisations. This has led to interesting conversations with my clients about how best to respond to the legislation, and how to protect whistleblowers.
But what is intriguing is how rapidly some clients jump to the question of malicious disclosure. Some have even nurtured the idea that anonymous disclosures should not be investigated at all. This is despite research showing that whistleblowers do indeed reveal wrongdoing in the vast majority of cases – and, of course, that the motivation of a whistleblower is quite a different matter to the veracity of their report.
Certainly, we need to apply a level of professional scepticism (“ABC”, a gruff old detective once counselled me as a young investigator – “Assume nothing. Believe nobody. Check everything.”). But that is not the same as suspicion.
In one respect this is understandable; whistleblowing disclosures can be quite fearful events. The mind might race – what has been happening? How will this affect the charity? Does this mean a lot of work? What will our donors say? But recognising the value of whistleblowers is an important part of being a responsible charity, and there are at least three good reasons for this.
Firstly, whistleblowers provide early warning. Frauds, for example, are known to increase in value the longer they are left undetected. An abuser gains more access to victims over time. And of course, as the harm to people mounts, so too will the severity of the resulting public reaction. If something is happening that can adversely affect your charity, you need to know about it, and early enough to limit the damage.
Secondly, whistleblowers contribute to continual improvement. Effectively and efficiently delivering your charitable purpose, your mission, is not a matter of “set-and-forget”. The world is constantly changing, and no charity is static. A “speak up” culture is a critical part of keeping your charity at the top of its game. Even in cases where no wrongdoing is found, the scrutiny generated by a whistleblowing matter can still find things to improve.
And thirdly, whistleblowers help you to see behind the curtain. The more senior you are, the more your visibility of what really goes on in your charity is filtered through managers and systems. Whistleblowers can cut through that, offering comparatively rare glimpses into what might be happening far from your view, or areas you might have taken for granted.
Whistleblowing is a key part of transparent, accountable and safe workplace culture. Charities, of all sectors, should embrace it. We need to see whistleblowing as business-as-usual; an important part of a modern, responsible charity’s approach to managing integrity risks. Our first reaction to a disclosure should not be horror, but gratitude. After all, none of us knows what the future holds – while today you may be the manager dealing with a whistleblower, tomorrow you may be standing in their shoes.
About the author: Oliver May was previously the head of counter-fraud for Oxfam GB. He is now a director in Deloitte’s forensic practice, where he helps not-for-profit, corporate and government clients to manage integrity risks. He blogs at Second Marshmallow and his book, Fighting Fraud and Corruption in the Humanitarian and Global Development Sector (Routledge, 2016), is out now. A follow-up book for international NGOs on managing terrorist financing risk is out next year.