By: Liezl Groenewald
The whistleblowing landscape has changed significantly over the last years. High profile cases have prompted new whistleblower protection regulations and legislation across the globe. But whistleblowing is no longer just a matter of legal interest. It has also become a societal issue. Names such as Edward Snowden, Julien Assange, or Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning have been known worldwide for their efforts to uncover injustice (Thüsing and Forst, 2016, 3-4). In South Africa whistleblowers such as Bianca Goodson, Suzanne Daniels, Angelo Agrizzi and Cynthia Stimpel have been central in exposing state capture. One thing that has emerged, in addition to the extent to which the country and its citizens have been played and done in, is that some of these whistleblowers had no joy by reporting through the safe reporting channels offered by their organisations. For this their employers could, of course, be blamed because they did not act on the reports. But it could also be that their reporting systems are ineffective, do not honour the confidentiality of reports, or the anonymity of reporters.
TEI has realised the importance of the quality of safe reporting systems for these very reasons. As a result, we developed, in 2007 already, a Standard for Independent External Whistleblowing Hotline Service Providers (EO1.1.1) who operate a 24/7 call centre. This Standard was redeveloped in 2018 to make provision for technological and other advancements in the industry. The redeveloped Standard, applicable to safe reporting systems managed by independent safe reporting service providers, and renamed SafeLine-EX, is a best practice standard that specifies requirements for a quality safe reporting system managed by independent safe reporting service providers. Independent safe reporting service providers use the Standard to demonstrate their ability to consistently provide quality services that protect whistle-blowers.
But being cognisant of the fact that some organisations prefer an inhouse, 24/7 safe reporting capacity, TEI also developed SafeLine-IN, based on the same principles and norms as SafeLine-EX and aimed at effective services that protect whistleblowers.
In 2020 we took the Standard further with the input of industry experts, by developing SafeLine-DigEX which specifies requirements for a quality digital safe reporting system managed by independent safe reporting service providers using only digital platforms.
What are these Standards?
SafeLine-EX, SafeLine-IN and SafeLine-DigEX are a set of best practice norms for professional and ethical conduct for external and internal safe reporting service providers (hereafter ‘service providers’) operating their own facilities or using only digital platforms that enable client organisations (hereafter ‘clients’) to report observed or perceived unethical conduct confidentially and anonymously.
What are the objectives of the Standards?
The objectives are:
- To strengthen the external, internal, and digital safe reporting industry by establishing a best practice industry standard.
- To provide quality assurance to organisations requiring such safe reporting services.
- To create conditions in which would-be whistleblowers can report misconduct with confidence.
- To differentiate legitimate from non-legitimate service providers.
- To discourage sub-standard service providers from entering the market; and
- To certify service providers as a “TEI-Certified Safe Reporting Service Provider”.
How do these Standards benefit independent service providers and clients?
Complying with these Standards helps service providers to:
- Organise their internal systems and processes.
- Improve the efficiency of their internal systems and processes.
- Continually improve their service delivery.
- Create conditions in which would-be whistleblowers are able to report misconduct with confidence; and
- Provide assurance to client organisations in terms of:
- confidentiality of information,
- protection of whistle-blowers’ identity,
- professional service delivery, and
- quality of reports.
What are the five guiding norms and standards for service providers?
The three Standards are based on five guiding norms for service providers, which balance client needs, whistleblower interests and operational requirements. These norms and guiding standards are:
|A commitment to integrity requires that the service provider is honest, adheres to clear moral principles, and is professional. To demonstrate commitment to the norm of integrity, service providers must comply with three standards, namely (1) being honest, (2) ensuring that safe reporting service provider staff are of a high ethical and professional standing, and (3) ensuring complete, accurate and truthful reporting.|
|A commitment to efficiency requires that the safe reporting service provider delivers high-quality information to clients in a timely manner. To demonstrate commitment to the norm of efficiency, service providers must comply with five standards, namely, (1) performing services in a timely manner, (2) ensuring that safe reporting contact centre staff are professionally trained to produce high-quality reports, (3) providing clients with customised service options, (4) assisting clients with awareness and communications initiatives, and (5) continually improving service.|
|A commitment to independence requires that the service provider remains free from conflicts of interest with their clients, clients’ stakeholders and other service providers. Independence includes two standards that service providers must comply with, namely, (1) identifying, declaring and avoiding conflicts of interest, and (2) operating a self-contained safe reporting contact centre or hosting an independent safe reporting digital platform.|
|A commitment to protection requires that the service provider respects whistle-blowers’ anonymity, as well as the confidentiality of their information, as applicable and appropriate, to prevent victimisation. Protection includes five standards, namely, (1) ensuring the security of the safe reporting contact centre facility or digital platform in the case of SafeLine-DigEX, (2) ensuring that the location of the safe reporting service provider is discreet, (3) guaranteeing whistle-blowers’ anonymity, (4) assuring the confidentiality of communications received and reports delivered and (5) ensuring that information received through all communication channels is recorded and securely stored.|
|A commitment to availability requires that the service provider ensures easy and reliable access to the safe reporting facility through a variety of channels, 24 hours per day, 365 days per year. Being available includes the following two standards that service providers must adhere to, namely, (1) guaranteeing the sustainability of the service and ensuring maximum up-time, and (2) providing a choice of user-friendly communication channels 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.|
How does the assessment work?
Service providers submit a self-assessment document that TEI whistleblowing experts evaluate against the relevant Safeline Standard. This is followed by an on-site visit where the assessor interviews staff, observes operations, and reviews and inspects documentation to determine if the service provider complies with the Standard.
Service providers who adhere to all the norms and standards receive a certificate of compliance, as well as the relevant logo banner from TEI. The certification is valid for one year.
The main reason for employees and other stakeholders in South Africa to refrain from reporting misconduct, is the belief that the organisation will not act. TEI regularly emphasises the importance of acting on all reports through our thought leadership activities, workshops, and presentations. It is, however, for the organisation to decide to heed our advice or not. The first step in the right direction is to have a trustworthy and professional safe reporting service provider that delivers on its promises of maintaining the confidentiality of information and
protecting whistleblowers beyond legal requirements. With our SafeLine Standards we provide assurance in this regard to organisations.
 Thüsing, G. and Forst, G. 2016. Whistleblowing Around the World: A Comparative Analysis of Whistleblowing in 23 Countries. In G. Thüsing and G. Forst (Eds.): Whistleblowing. A comparative study (pp. 3 – 32). Switzerland: Springer.
Liezl Groenewald is a Senior Manager: Organisational Ethics Development at The Ethics Institute. She is also the author of the Whistleblowing Management Handbook.