New Australian research has found that more than 80 per cent of whistleblowers face negative repercussions for speaking up about wrongdoing in the workplace, prompting calls for new federal whistleblower protection laws to proceed.
Revealed today at a Griffith University symposium in Sydney, Whistleblowing: New rules, new policies, new vision, the research comes as the federal government prepares to reactivate whistleblowing amendments to the Corporations Act, and federal Independent MPs prepare a new Bill for a national anti-corruption body with whistleblower protection powers.
The results are from the main data collection phase of the Australian Research Council project Whistling While They Work 2: Improving managerial responses to whistleblowing in public and private organisations.
Project leader Professor A J Brown said the results show, overpoweringly, how important whistleblowing is to organisations and society as a means of identifying and rectifying wrongdoing, and achieving positive change and reform.
“However, it also shows the treatment and outcomes experienced by whistleblowers continue to fall far short of the level of social and organisational value placed on whistleblowing itself,” Professor Brown said.
Drawing on the experiences of 17,778 individuals across 46 organisations in Australia and New Zealand, the results showed that the grand majority – 81.6 per cent – of those who reported cases of unethical behaviour in their workplaces faced repercussions for speaking up, with 42 per cent of reporters feeling mistreated before their complaint.
Management and governance professionals who dealt with whistleblowing cases agreed that in at least 34 per cent of cases, the whistleblower suffered harassment and/or direct adverse employment impacts.
Despite this, the researchers found there is a broad consensus in both the private and public sectors that reporting suspected wrongdoing is vital to the ongoing success of organisations, with fundamental reforms – from managerial changes to new training and other procedures – arising from employee reports in 58.2 per cent of cases.
“These results show us that, while not completely unavoidable, detrimental outcomes are still very much a reality for a worrying percentage of people who come forward against organisational misbehaviour,” Professor Brown said.
“The broad conclusion is that, although both public and private companies support whistleblowing as a means of keeping themselves honest at a theoretical level, in practice, the people who inhabit these organisations are generally not so receptive to someone who comes forward with an issue.”
In addition, the report uncovered new areas to pursue further study, including the influence of the type of alleged wrongdoing on how such cases are managed, and the prevalence of informal, “collateral” impacts on whistleblowers, including stress and isolation.
The WWTW2 project is thought to be the largest dataset to have been collected for the specific purpose of understanding whistleblowing in organisations, and the first to be conducted across the public and private sectors, using the same methodology, at the same time.
It is also the first major empirical study designed to better understand not only what happens when staff perceive and report wrongdoing, but how the organisation responded, including assessing a range of key factors that may explain why.
Last week, Assistant Treasurer Stuart Robert confirmed that in the next two weeks, the Government plans to introduce new amendments to whistleblower protections in Part 9.4AAA of the Corporations Act, overhauling the rules for big business including the banks.
And this week, Independent MP Cathy McGowan confirmed that a whistleblower protection authority is part of her plan for a new federal anti-corruption body, or national integrity commission.
More information about the WWTW2 project, which involves 23 partners and supporters, can be found here.