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Supporting the whistleblower

Jul 20, 2018
Sinead Watts explores the need for whistleblowers and whistleblowing policies in all organisations.

Whistle-blowing is not a new phenomenon but one which has been heavily publicised in recent years. High profile whistleblowers like Edward Snowden, who leaked classified National Security Agency documents, and Dr Grigory Rodchenkov, who blew the whistle on the Russian athlete state-sponsored doping programme at the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, have received both praise and criticism for their actions. Both of those men have had to hide from their governments.

Although these are extreme examples of whistleblowing, it raises the question, are management doing enough to encourage whistleblowing in their organisations? Are there proper policies and procedures in place to investigate tips? Is there sufficient protection for the whistleblower? 

A recent survey conducted by the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners identified that 40% of frauds within the workplace are identified by whistleblowers, with over half of these tips being made by employees. It is important that both management and employees understand the protection that is afforded to whistleblowers. In Northern Ireland, the current Public Interest Disclosure (Northern Ireland) Order 1998 and the Protective Disclosures Act 2014 in the Republic of Ireland seek to protect those who blow the whistle on wrong doing in the workplace. However, despite this legislative protection, there is an apparent reluctance amongst employees in coming forward for fear of losing their job and/or being victimised. For example, a recent survey of staff in hospitals, care homes and social service providers in Northern Ireland found 44% of those who raised concerns to senior management said they suffered as a result.

The benefit of whistle blowers to a business cannot be underestimated. A good tip from a whistleblower can ensure wrong doing within a company is quickly identified. If reported internally, this allows management to investigate the matter away from the public media spotlight and resolve the issue before hefty fines may be imposed.

For whistleblowing to work effectively, it is vital that internal policies set out the whistle-blowing process and the protection available to all company employees clearly. The consequences of not investigating tips properly are vast, leaving organisations exposed to negative publicity and, potentially, very hefty fines. For example, the Olympus Corporation of the Americas settled their lawsuit with the Justice Department of America in 2016 for $646 million after a blew the whistle on their illegal sales practices.

In reality, there is little choice other than to investigate any whistleblower claims that are received by your organisation. It is vital that any investigation is robust and you choose an investigator who is impartial and appropriately skilled to handle such delicate matters.

Sinead Watts is a manager in the Forensic and Investigation Services department of Grant Thornton.