Whistling and working - it can be done

29 JULY 2009

A national report on the management of 'whistleblowers' in the public sector highlights the need to better support and protect people who come forward with reports of wrongdoing in their workplace, and offers suggestions to overcome the problems.

A national report on the management of  ‘whistleblowers’ in the public sector  highlights the need to better support and protect people who come forward with reports of wrongdoing in their workplace, and offers suggestions to overcome the problems.
 
The principal author of the report is Mr Peter Roberts from Charles Sturt University’s (CSU) Australian Graduate School of Policing, as part of a national team lead by Griffith University.
 
The report states that public sector organisations should adopt a policy of ‘when in doubt, report’ in reporting wrongdoing and corruption at work.
 
“Respondents to our surveys, distributed across Australia since 2005, have reported harassment by managers and colleagues after reporting misconduct, corruption and other wrongdoing in their workplaces. Legislation and policies only go so far in protecting whistleblowers,” Mr Roberts said.
 
“There must be a culture of support for whistleblowers. Organisation leaders must encourage reporting, act on reports where they are verified and protect reporters from adverse consequences.
 
“This change in culture must also flow through the organisation. We found some lower level managers have negative and prejudicial views about employees who come forward with reports of wrongdoing. This must be addressed by real leadership and training, as well as adequate resources and governance to allow it to happen.”
 
The researchers found that employees prefer to report to their own management rather than using other mechanisms, so they encourage organisations to have a number of ways for reporting workplace wrongdoing.
 
“As line managers are most likely to directly receive reports, they need comprehensive training on the organisation’s reporting pathways, especially when they should handle reports and when to forward them to higher managers. We consider that well trained immediate supervisors are as important as any counselling services that can be offered by an organisation,” Mr Roberts said.
 
Attempting to maintain the anonymity of reporters was also cited in the report as crucial for maintaining the credibility of the reporting process.
 
“If employees believe that reporting a wrongdoing will immediately spread through the informal gossip grapevine within the organisation, it is unlikely that they will come forward with reports of wrongdoing,” he said.
 
“The protection of whistleblowers and other internal witnesses to report corruption, misconduct and maladministration is a great unsolved problem of public sector governance. Our research team has sought to identify more routine strategies for preventing, reducing and addressing reprisals and conflicts that arise from whistleblowing.”
 
Funded by the Australian Research Council, the final report of the project, titled Whistling while they work: Enhancing the theory and practice of internal witness management in public sector organisations, will be presented at the second Australian Public Service Anti-Corruption Conference being held until Thursday 30 July in Brisbane.
 
There has been considerable interest in this research from jurisdictions across Australia, with funding and in-kind support from Commonwealth, NSW, Queensland and Western Australia, while ACT, Victoria and Northern Territory are also keenly interested in the results. Data was collected in four jurisdictions using seven surveys of over 8 000 participants from four jurisdictions across Australia. The project included six other researchers from four universities: Griffith, Sydney, Edith Cowan and Monash.

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