Our tradition of whistle blowing

- Wednesday, September 21, 2016


By Andrew Hedges

Whistle blowing is a part of who we are
Australia is no stranger to a tradition of whistle blowing and it comes in various forms. They can be individuals who speak out against fraud, wrongdoing, illegal activities and corruption in the workplace.

But, while that whistle blowing tradition has probably been around since Federation, it has to be said that there are various points of view about whether whistle blowing is well regarded by society and organisations at large, and what its role is in relation to corruption in the workplace.

After all, what do we mean by corruption in the workplace? Do we mean white-collar crime? Or something far more subtle such as turning a blind eye to fiddling with timesheets or a full-time employee applying for sick leave when they’re in fact working a second job or simply wanting to go to the beach (and everyone else at work knows it). What are the ramifications for the whistle blower if these dishonest behaviours are uncovered in the workplace and he or she is blamed?

There are some arguments that unless the behaviour is widely condemned, it can become a part of the corporate culture and therefore can be hard to systematically uncover, let alone break the cycle of corruption in the workplace.

Whistle blowers are marginalised
Indeed, current newspaper reports suggest whistle blowers are not well regarded in Australia and a recent case has brought this to light. An Australian employee acted as a whistle blower in the US about BHP Billiton’s mining activities overseas several years ago. While the culture in the US favours and protects whistle blowers, several cases found that Australian workers are often not well protected here.

These cases in Australia since 2014 revealed that “those who flag corruption inside companies receive limited or no protection and are often sacked or mistreated, while in the US, which paid for evidence that exposed alleged bribery by BHP Billiton, whistle blowers are encouraged to come forward,” the   newspaper report found.

It would be naïve to think corruption in the workplace does not occur in both the private and public sectors.  Traditionally, though, it is often the government sector which has difficulties dealing with these issues. There are a variety of reasons for this, they include poor management skills, poor training in dealing with whistle blowers and corruption in the workplace, the organisation is too big for managers to keep a close eye on individual teams or there is a culture of sweeping everything under the carpet.

Just as inappropriate behaviours such as alcoholism, bullying or sexual harassment can be tolerated in the workplace for quite some time because workers are worried about the implications of “dobbing someone in” ,  a corporate culture can exist where employees are encouraged to support corruption in one way or another.  It can often have to do with individuals wanting to feel as if they belong to the team. Are they accepted by their colleagues, or do they fear rejection if they don’t toe the line?

Wanting to fit in
If there is an accepted mode of behaviour, such as filling in timesheets incorrectly for personal gain, would the newcomer be accepted if he or she said something about it? They can be encouraged to join in to be a part of the group, or be intimidated into silence, and decide to comply with the “norm” rather than face being ostracised. These group dynamics can have a big influence on how co-workers are expected to behave.  Workers who have been engaging in corrupt conduct in one way or another may use their power to assert their views on others.

Corruption can thrive in a collaborative environment where team members unite to continue the corrupt way of doing things. If exaggerated travel or lunch expenses forms, for example, need to be signed off, there could be a secretive and collaborative way of ensuring that they go through the system.  These dishonest networks can grow and prosper within an organisation as long as no-one rocks the boat.  Another aspect is that ignorance can play a part, too.

Don’t rock the boat
If a newcomer is told that this is the way things have always been done, there is no reason for them to question it even if it seems odd or contrary to how things are done in other workplaces.  And even if some dubious methods are questioned, cunning workers who know how to manipulate the system are able to cover their tracks, pressure others to keep quiet or fabricate evidence so no-one is the wiser. It can prevent or severely hinder an investigation from uncovering anything untoward and it explains why our tradition of whistle blowing is a complex one.

To find out more about corruption in workplace download this free Whitepaper here.

Corruption and misconduct are often hard to detect without the assistance of employees. A well supported confidential hotline is an essential component of your risk management strategy. Research how our hotline service can assist. Whistleblowerhotline.com.au

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