Whistleblowing is not the magic cure for unethical behaviour. But there is a place for it.

Whistleblowing and the safeguarding of whistleblowers are widespread practices globally. Many organisations believe that implementing a safe reporting (whistleblowing) system will effectively address their ethical challenges. Some complement this with a code of ethics, hoping for a robust remedy. However, when whistleblowing becomes the sole tool at hand, every ethical issue may appear to be a nail.

Organisation’s  apparent common belief that individuals will readily report misconduct, is often an attempt to identify wrongdoers, penalise them, and set an example for others to learn from. Additionally, it serves as a crucial compliance measure when evaluating an organisation’s ethical performance. However, why does whistleblowing often fail to fulfil its apparent promise of exposing wrongdoing, particularly in the South African context?

In many cultures, including South Africa, whistleblowing is strongly discouraged. Those who do report are often shunned, ostracised, and subjected to victimisation by their social groups. Instances of retaliation against whistleblowers and their families are not uncommon, and their lives are invariably altered, often irreversibly, after their actions come to light. In organisational settings, whistleblowing rarely ends well – trust, reputations, careers, and lives are frequently shattered.

Whistleblowing is a reactive approach to ethics management, but some organisations tend to excessively rely on it, especially when it is used in isolation or alongside insufficient pro-active interventions. When whistleblowing becomes necessary, it signifies a failure in organisational culture. This can foster a fear-driven environment that is detrimental to sustainable organisational development. Employees tend to leave when trust in the organisation and its leadership diminishes.

Organisations that lean heavily on whistleblowing often overlook the fact that such expectations contradict what employees have been taught not to do since childhood. Even in organisations with mature ethical cultures, statements like “we encourage whistleblowing and will protect you” are met with cynicism. Moreover, whistleblowing is often misused as a management tool, with executives immediately demanding to know the whistleblower’s identity or resorting to knee-jerk reactions such as changing policies or suspending the whistleblower.

Employees usually report wrongdoing to their supervisors or through formal reporting channels managed by external providers. However, the worst-case scenario for organisations is when whistleblowers bypass internal channels and contact law enforcement or the media directly. This usually occurs when there is a disbelief that the organisation will act on a whistleblowing report.

Furthermore, many employees are unsure about how to blow the whistle, and there is often confusion between simply raising ethical concerns and engaging in formal whistleblowing. Additionally, malicious reporting is not uncommon, often driven by personal vendettas or perceived favouritism.

Reports of misconduct are often mishandled by managers who lack the necessary training to effectively address ethical concerns, protect the whistleblower’s identity, and maintain the confidentiality of the report.

Let’s move on from the dark side of whistleblowing. While there are inevitably individuals who engage in misconduct, there are constructive approaches to dealing with such situations. Whistleblowing does play a role in this regard, but it must be employed and managed appropriately to be impactful.

Numerous proactive ethics management strategies have proven effective in promoting positive ethical standards. These include:

  • Creating a maturing ethical culture over time. This is the most crucial determinant for safe and effective whistleblowing and entails a concerted effort by all, particularly leadership.
  • Ensuring that the formal whistleblowing facility is operated by an external service provider. This ensures that reports are managed with sensitivity, confidentiality, and anonymity.
  • Fostering a culture of speaking up within the organisation, allowing employees to freely voice ethical concerns. Additionally, establish a formal ethics advice desk to address uncertainties.
  • Empowering the ethics office and enable ethics officers to enforce whistleblowing policies and efficiently manage cases submitted by external service providers. These providers should be accredited by an independent third-party assessor, such as The Ethics Institute.
  • Establishing a clear reporting pathway, with reports initially submitted to the organisation’s ethics office or internal audit function who should evaluate the information provided and determine who should investigate the matter. Subsequently, other appropriate functions, such as HR, risk management, or forensic investigations, should become involved. The guideline is to limit the number of individuals handling reports.
  • Taking all necessary measures to safeguard whistleblowers from potential emotional or physical harm.
  • Providing training for line managers to confidently and effectively manage reports they receive and ensure protection for those who raise minor ethics concerns or report serious transgressions.
  • Offering training to employees on where to blow the whistle and what information should be included as a minimum in their reports.
  • Maintaining proper, frequent, and confidential communication with whistleblowers once they have reported.

So, whistleblowing is not the magic cure for ethics ills, but it does hold a valid and significant position in the broader ethics framework. As a reactive measure to manage ethics, it should ideally serve as a final option for individuals who wish to report unethical conduct. Preferably, issues should first be addressed internally. If an organisation’s ethical culture is mature enough to accommodate whistleblowing without instilling fear, and if the necessary structures are in place to ensure a safe reporting environment, whistleblowing can contribute to fostering sustainable ethical growth within organisations. The key takeaway regarding whistleblowing is simple: employ a variety of strategies rather than relying solely on one approach. Otherwise, everything appears as a nail and the solution is always the hammer.

Prof. Leon van Vuuren is an Executive Director: Organisational Ethics at The Ethics Institute. He holds a Doctorate of Industrial Psychology from the University of Johannesburg.