Speaking Up is hard to do – Irish business challenged to create safe environment for workers to speak up safely

Sep 22, 2017

Attendees of the ‘Speaking Up’ conference heard a call from leading industry experts to be part of the cultural shift that allows for whistleblowing. The audience of financial leaders, advisers and public sector professionals today were urged to recognise the benefits and not just the risks of ‘Speaking Up’. The event which was jointly hosted by Chartered Accountants Ireland and the Corporate Governance Association of Ireland, called on attendees to rethink the approach of resorting to an adversarial position, stating organisations should embrace those who speak up as part of the moral consciousness of the organisation. 

According to Tom Clonan, security analyst and former Defence Forces officer, Irish society and in particular business has evolved considerably in 20 years and made a big cultural shift already, but in some instances more can be done inside organisations to shape cultures of acceptance in relation to speaking up.

He said: “As the legislation around Protected Disclosures and the path to follow become better known, the reality is that more employees may bring issues that are troubling them into the public domain. We need to see this as a positive, and businesses need to plan for and manage this like any other risk if they want positive outcomes.”

“My advice to all businesses and organisations is that we need to change our perspective and see those that are brave enough to speak up as part of the moral conscience of an organisation that can actually add value.

“Organisations, like people, may have the best intentions and hardly ever set out to act unethically. In the same way, there is no common personality type for someone who speaks up. 99.9% of people become whistle blowers through circumstance, not design.”

As keynote speaker, Labour Party leader Brendan Howlin TD addressed the impact of laws that strengthened protections for whistle-blowers and the need now for cultural change. Deputy Howlin said: "I think the impact of the legislation has been transformative and it has emboldened more people than ever to speak out."  

Research from Transparency International Ireland (TI Ireland) has found that where workers are unaware of their options and the consequences of speaking up, they regularly fall victim to reprisal. From the employer’s perspective, the legal and reputational costs of litigation can also be considerable.

TI Ireland established a Speak Up Helpline in 2011 and the Transparency Legal Advice Centre in 2015, to provide free information, referral or specialist legal advice to anyone considering reporting wrongdoing. According to John Devitt, TI Ireland Chief Executive, “The ‘Speak Up’ helpline currently receives over 200 calls each year. Approximately 30% of these calls relate to workplace whistleblowing. We have seen a 115% increase in the proportion of whistle-blowers calling the helpline since the Protected Disclosures Act (2014) was enacted. This has led to a sharp rise in demand for free legal advice from clients.”

In welcoming all attendees to the event, Chartered Accountants Ireland president Shauna Greely said:

“It is very appropriate that Chartered Accountants Ireland is hosting an event to debate this important issue. Bringing public scrutiny to bear on financial management and rectitude is intrinsic to our profession. Chartered Accountants Ireland recognise the requirement to ‘speak up’ as a professional obligation as well as a public duty.  Organisational leadership from the top down, ensuring that speaking up culture pervades all levels within an organisation is vital, and is likely to be more prevalent in organisations with greater diversity of employees and those which embrace a culture of openness. Reporting and bringing to light errors or irregularities within organisations is an obligation in so many aspects of our profession. In certain scenarios some of our members will also have external Anti-Money Laundering reporting requirements, requirements to report known theft and fraud offences, or, in the case of auditors, reporting category 1 or 2 offences under the Companies Act 2014 in Ireland. Some Chartered Accountants themselves have braved the path of speaking up and have encountered difficulties from both perspectives while others have had more positive experiences.“

“I’m proud of the work my fellow members carry out, sometimes in challenging circumstances. I am also proud that the Institute has processes in place to support my fellow Chartered Accountants who may need to call on our advice and support when dealing with difficult situations. I commend the work of both Chartered Accountants and the Corporate Governance Association of Ireland in their joint commitment to changing the culture around ‘speaking up’ and encourage this work into the future.”

James Kavanagh, chairman of the Corporate Governance Association of Ireland (CGAI) said: “The conference today highlights the need for corporate governance to be firmly on the agenda for Directors and Executives of all private and charitable / not-for-profit organisations noting our moral compass is in need of redress.”

ENDS

Reference: Niall Fitzgerald, Head of Ethics and Corporate Governance, Chartered Accountants Ireland, M: 086 8039880

Bryan Rankin, Marketing Manager, Chartered Accountants Ireland M: 087 2047905

Note to editors:

Photos of this afternoon’s event will be released to picture desks at 3pm Thurs 21 Sept.

View photos from the event over on our Flickr account.