Two of the leading global researchers on whistleblowing, Professor AJ Brown from Griffith’s Centre for Governance and Public Policy and Dr Marcia Miceli from Georgetown University have presented preliminary findings on the latest survey of the Whistling While They Work 2 project to a maximum capacity seminar at Griffith’s Nathan Campus on March 16.

Guests from Griffith University included co-author Dr Sandra Lawrence, Dr Ferran Martinez i Coma and post graduate students, were joined by Ms Louise Rosemann from the Queensland Ombudsman office.

The project focusses on improving managerial responses to whistleblowing in public and private sector organisations and follows on from a preliminary report that was released in November 2016. It is led by Griffith University and funded by partner and supporter organisations and the Australian Research Council under ARC Linkage Project LP150100386.

The research team includes the Australian National University, University of Sydney and Victoria University of Wellington, and is supported by the Australian Research Council and by 23 partner and supporter organisations including the ASIC, CPA Australia and all leading public integrity agencies in Australia and New Zealand.  For more information on WWTW2 visit the site and read the 2016 Preliminary Report and list of partner and supporter organisations.

Professor Brown’s research on whistleblowing spans decades and he is well known from his Whistling While They Work 1 project that broke new ground in surveying the incidence and significance of whistleblowing across 118 public sector organisations in Australia.

His team’s advice to governments and parliaments includes major submissions accepted by the 2017 Parliamentary Joint Committee on Corporations and Financial Services, as part of its inquiry into whistleblower protections in the corporate, public and not-for-profit sectors – the chair of which acknowledged Professor Brown’s contribution when tabling the report in federal parliament, last September.

The spotlight on whistleblowing and legal protections for whistleblowers has recently increased with new legislation being introduced in December last year for stronger whistleblower protections in Australia’s Corporations Act.

Professor Brown’s 2016 report explains why — organisational processes and procedures for the reporting of wrongdoing are widely recognised as vital to good governance, both for organisations themselves and to fulfil wider purposes of integrity, regulatory compliance and social responsibility.

“Why is there an ARC Linkage and all this buy-in? Because as this law reform shows, there is big organisational and political momentum for improved whistleblower protections, so for better or for worse, it’s good to be able to try and inject actual evidence and research into these debates,” said Professor Brown.

The latest research confirms that when there are big power or status differentials between the wrongdoer and whistleblower, then it becomes harder to provide support and protection for the whistleblower. And as a consequence the development of whistleblower protection systems are required in workplaces as they have a duty of care to protect whistleblowers.

“But even more importantly, can internal managerial support mechanisms and strategies actually make a difference, or when do they appear to make a difference, in these difficult circumstances?” Professor Brown asked.

“The key substantive issue for our research, as for the newly proposed legislation, is whether organisations can successfully fulfil their duty to protect and support people who speak up about wrongdoing.”

“This legislation when it goes through will be another world first in terms of specific legislative requirements upon companies and organisations, that says not just they should have a general procedure or policy for people to be able to report wrongdoings, but they have got a statutory obligation to have policies about supporting and protecting people who report wrongdoings.”

“But do we know that it’s even possible? Our research is trying to systematically identify the conditions under which it is safe to entrust organisations with that responsibility, and provide them with better evidence of how to discharge it.”

Professor Brown’s introduction was followed by Dr Marcia Miceli who presented a first look at some of the preliminary findings from recent WWTW2 surveys of 2937 wrongdoing reporters from 38 Australian and New Zealand, public and private sector organisations.

Dr Miceli’s snapshot included a whistleblowing definition and five hypotheses on power differentials evaluated in the surveys. They considered whether employees who report wrongdoing involving powerful wrongdoers, experience worse consequences than do other internal whistleblowers.

“We define whistleblowers as organisations members including former members, people who maybe quit after a bad experience with whistleblowing, as well as job applicants, maybe somebody has been denied a job for unfair reasons. We would broadly consider them organisation members for the purpose of defining whistleblowing,” said Dr Miceli.

“Including people who disclose illegal or immoral or illegitimate practices. So if one discloses illegal, immoral or illegitimate practices including omissions that they fail to do, under the control of their employer, to persons or organisations who may be able to affect action, we define them as whistleblowers.”

“Another important variable that AJ touched on is managerial support. If you blow the whistle and you feel very supported by managers then, we propose you will also feel that investigative action did follow you reporting, and that you were less mistreated after you reported.”

“We are going to be examining the importance of the whistleblower’s power and the wrongdoers power here. Focussing on one specific indicator of the status of your job if you are an employee versus a manager.”

“The crux of what we are trying to do is find out, is there an interaction between managerial support and the power variables. Lets say that you have seen something that a very high level wrongdoer has engaged in, is it inevitable that you are going to have a negative experience if you report this, or can this be mitigated if you have support from management?”

The survey evaluated responses asking about the respondent’s employer in order to run two separate analyses to determine whether the hypotheses were supported for one sector but not for the other.

“We have two sets of analysis, everything is the same but one is in the private sector and one is in the public sector. So you can see did it make much of a difference,” said Dr Miceli.

For those interested in what are the most common types of wrongdoing uncovered in the survey; the number one wrongdoing was bullying or victimisation in the workplace (50%), followed by defective or incompetent decisions or procedures (34%), then improper use of organisation resources (32%), then engaging in conflicts of interest (28%) and ending with corrupt behaviour (27%).

Dr Miceli raised an example by Uber whose CEO in the US stepped down in 2017 after a whistleblower’s blog (Susan Fowler former Uber Engineer) called attention to employee harassment by an alleged star performer. In this case the high power of the wrongdoer appeared to impact management’s soft response.

“When I reported the situation, I was told by both HR and upper management that even though this was clearly sexual harassment, it was this man’s first offence, and that they wouldn’t feel comfortable giving him anything other than a warning and stern talking-to. Upper management told me that he was a high performer,” said Ms Fowler.

The preliminary findings of the latest surveys have indicated good news for high level whistleblowers in the public and private sectors if there is managerial support in their workplace. And good news for employee whistleblowers in the private sector.

So far, the preliminary findings are; Higher wrongdoer power is associated with investigative inaction and more informal and formal repercussions against whistleblowers, in both sectors. Lower whistleblower power did not have a strong and direct relationship with investigative inaction or more repercussions. Managerial support is associated with investigative action and fewer repercussions.

“It certainly gives us a bit of a new focus because at least on this evidence quite possibly organisations are doing a good job of delivering similar investigative action outcomes and repercussion outcomes, irrespective of whether the whistleblower is low status or high status,” said Professor Brown.

“The crucial thing that makes a difference is what’s the status of the wrongdoer, not what’s status of the whistleblower. So it gives us a new departure point for actually burrowing into that when we have the full data set. It’s the power issues and the wrongdoer status issues that are crucial.”

A difference was highlighted between the outcomes in the private and public sectors that will be investigated in future research when it comes to low level whistleblowers in the public sector.
“In the private sector, for those blowing the whistle on more powerful people, managerial support made a bigger difference in reducing repercussions than in the public sector, on these preliminary analyses,” said Professor Brown.

“There is possibly something about public sector structure and hierarchy and the ability of senior managers to dig in, and for this to still result in poorer outcomes for whistleblowers, when compared to the private sector”.

An interesting point was raised by Ms Louise Rosemann from the Queensland Ombudsman office about whistleblowers reporting to external bodies.

“Perhaps the other factor not yet captured is the role of external bodies in the public sector, not just the Ombudsman, but Crime and Corruption Commission, and other integrity agencies, which provide public sector whistleblowers alternative options, said Ms Rosemann.

“The research that has happened and is continuing to happen is a huge thing for us and that’s why you’ve got all that support from the integrity agencies across Australia. This research feeds directly into the work that we’re doing and makes a difference for us in terms of how we support agencies. That’s why we are on board,” said Ms Rosemann.