Organisational culture key to whistleblower wellbeing

Professor A J BrownProfessor A J Brown, Project Leader, Centre for Governance & Public Policy, Griffith University

Presenting at the inaugural Whistleblowing, new rules, new policies, new vision conference, Professor A J Brown delivered new research highlighting the importance of organisational culture and risk management assessments on the wellbeing of whistleblowers.

Last month I had the pleasure of presenting our latest research on whistleblowing - Whistling while they work 2 - at our inaugural national Whistleblowing Conference. Here, I share some of our key findings.

Whistleblowing is widely recognised as important for organisations. It drives positive organisational reform and change. Yet, there is a significant contrast between this recognition and the continuing poor outcomes for those reporting corruption and misconduct. Furthermore, the proportion of public sector whistleblowers experiencing mistreatment appears to have changed little in the decade since the first Whistling while they work research. In our latest study, those who reported wrongdoing said they were treated badly by managers and/or colleagues in 41 per cent of cases, and experienced some form of negative repercussions in 81 per cent.

For this study, we examined the performance of whistleblowing processes in 46 organisations using the experience of 17,778 individuals. Although we included large and small public sector, private and not-for-profit organisations in the study, we found - perhaps surprisingly - the sector had little bearing on the dynamics of whistleblowing.

As the importance of whistleblowing is recognised by more organisations, more policies and procedures are being put in place.  Importantly though, we found limited evidence of the presence or absence of official policies and procedures, alone, affecting outcomes for reporters.

Instead, we confirmed that a supportive organisational culture has the biggest influence on treatment. As supervising managers are often the first point for employee disclosure, their role in determining what happened was pivotal. We now have compelling evidence that where managers support whistleblowers, repercussions fall.  As one would expect, this is especially true if it occurs in organisations with more positive ethical culture, but also across the board.

How do they do it?  We found concrete evidence that where assessment of the risks of detrimental outcomes are made, and acted on, negative repercussions again tumble. This is a huge opportunity for organisations - less than 10 per cent of wrongdoing reporters said any risk assessment took place.  But where it did, it was the trigger for massively different outcomes. Steps were taken to then proactively manage problems in a high proportion of cases. Most of all, when risks were assessed early, reporters ultimately perceived that they were treated better, and the overall quantity of negative repercussions dropped by half.

We now finally have more concrete evidence that instilling good organisational culture around reporting wrongdoing and enforcing practices that better protect employees, through early risk assessment and support, make a genuine difference. Whistleblowing comes with many challenges, but the organisations that confront these head on stand to be rewarded - not only by increased levels of reporting, but the knowledge that they are looking after their employees’ welfare and properly respecting their trust.

This work is part of the collaborative research project Whistling While They Work 2: Improving managerial responses to whistleblowing in the public and private sector organisations, funded by the Australian Research Council and 23 partners and supporters, including IBAC.