Whistleblowing is often the start of a positive change – fixing something that is very wrong. A whistleblower may expose wrongful behaviour, illegal activities, dishonesty, violations, corruption, health and safety dangers and unsafe practices. Who do they tell?
Someone internally – their boss, senior management, the CEO, or maybe they tell media outside or authorities and regulators.
It is often said that workplaces have two sets of rules: those that are written into policy and those that are actually followed. This latter set of rules is the social landscape of the environment, and it can be either positive or negative. Typically, it evolves and changes over time and without some purposeful organisational activity to shape it in a positive way, it can shift towards patterns of unacceptable behaviour slowly enough that many lose perspective of how things should be.
It takes some real courage for someone to step outside of this shift in behaviour and put a halt to unacceptable, unhealthy or illegal practices. It is often more difficult to move against the tide than it is to get caught up in the stream and be part of the machine that is causing problems. It requires not only the ability to see the problem but also some skill in raising the issue.
I am a whistleblower – and tomorrow is the day my film Shadow of Doubt goes public – a representation of my work on the case of Sue Neill-Fraser who I believe has been wrongfully convicted of a murder in Tasmania. This film should shock Australia – or anyone who cares about justice. For those with Foxtel – please tune in to Shadow of Doubt on Ci at 7.30pm. There is also a world premiere film release at the Hobart State Cinema and a season to follow.
So what advice can I give?
1. Fact, not emotion. Document it.
Some people feel really uncomfortable with this step, as though they are spying on and undermining their colleagues. This step is actually a good check to see if you are making an interpretation or dealing with facts. By writing down the events that you think or know are unacceptable, and the times and dates of these you can form an accurate picture of whether action needs to be taken and you can be clear about what you have observed.
2. Plan how to reveal, strategically.
The stress around raising a workplace issue is usually about how hard it is to raise it, and the reaction that the senior person will have. More important than their reaction is your next step! If they are angry, what do you do? If they are going to dismiss your claim, what will be your next step? Working through these contingency questions will give you a lot more stability in raising an issue. Work out who is the RIGHT person or authority to take your concern. Maybe you should be going straight to a very high level, if your concern is a very high level concern. What is your form – a call, an email, a report, a meeting, a book or in my case a film!
3. Bravery – the isolation a person can go through.
Revealing unsavoury practices will almost always be met with a negative reaction at some point. It can be really isolating, particularly if the person or team that has transgressed is popular with other people you work with, or there is a long-standing culture to behave in this way. This is part of understanding the consequences and contingencies of blowing the whistle. It may make you unpopular. There may be confrontations and social exclusion. This is why documentation of events (not interpretations) is so important.
4. Cover yourself – you can never have too much legal and expert advice.
Accusing someone of transgressing can have a wide range of implications, and there can be legal ramifications if you don’t cover yourself correctly. Speaking to legal experts and people who have a lot of experience will help you to avoid mistakes and think through contingencies that you may not have considered. The more you tap into the experience of others the more you will be able to craft your action and understand the consequences.
5. Build alliances
Within an organisation, people in power generally have a strong rapport and have been at the organisation for a long time. If that person is doing something wrong (financial embezzlement, bullying, sexual harassment, etc) then most will doubt your claims. By speaking to people within the organisation, even in a hypothetical manner (e.g. “what would you do if you came across somebody in a senior position that was…) you can gain support for your position well in advance of actually making a claim against anyone. It isn’t so much an alliance-building tactic as it is a further reinforcement of your position.
6. Appreciate and publicise the support of others.
When you find yourself in one of these potentially volatile situations it is important to recognise that those that help and support you are also sticking their necks out for you. This generosity needs to be appreciated, and it might even help you in those lonely patches that emerge when you are in the meaty part of the ordeal.
Eve Ash has a wide range of resources and books that can help people change their thinking and habits in a constructive way.