South Africans have good reason to think twice about blowing the whistle at work – reports of adverse consequences experienced by high-profile whistleblowers seemingly abound. But not every whistleblower need fear a similar fate. In my discussion with Patricia Ntuli on SAFM’s Late Night Conversations on Monday 7 February we tackled the subject of blowing the whistle but not your identity.
In a segment called Raising the Bar each Monday at 10.30 pm, Patricia and I talk all things ethics and corruption. Rather than focus on the challenges we know our country has, we are putting a spotlight on the insights, approaches and solutions that can move us forward in this post-Zondo Commission era.
Because whistleblowing is such a complex and important topic, we are addressing it over a number of episodes. The specific focus of this episode was: Reporting wrongdoing to your employer while remaining anonymous. We will discuss other whistleblowing situations, such as strategies for whistleblowing when your employer is well aware of or complicit in the wrongdoing, in later episodes.
Interested in the subject of blowing the whistle at work without blowing your identity? Listen to the show podcast here.
Alternatively, here is a summary of points from our discussion:
We know that whistleblowers have played a pivotal role in bringing to light unethical and illegal activity that we might not otherwise have known about.
We keep hearing about the personal costs experienced by some of these brave people – the negative impact on their careers, their income, their family lives and physical safety. Tragically, we know that blowing the whistle can even be deadly.
The media spotlight on the high-profile South Africa whistleblowers who have spoken out against state capture and procurement fraud has affected potential whistleblowers in both a positive and negative way.
On the one hand we have a new generation of national heroes, role models for integrity, that people can look up to.
On the other, the focus on harm suffered by high-profile whistleblowers is having a deterrent effect on many people who work in environments where they may well be able to speak up safely.
What our country can ill-afford is a situation in which there is a drop in whistleblowing. This makes it important that we get back to basics on how people in the workplace can blow the whistle effectively, but anonymously.
Of course, if you are in a position to speak up openly that has many advantages for the process of detecting and remedying wrongdoing. But for many, sharing their suspicions or knowledge anonymously or confidentially is the only way they can imagine doing so.
But before we discuss anonymous whistleblowing, there is a critical distinction we must all draw in our minds, and that is between a WHISTLEBLOWER and a WITNESS. It is not inevitable that if you blow the whistle, you become a witness.
The whistleblowers in the news are those who have given evidence in public, they’ve served as witnesses to wrongdoing that they have encountered in their places of work. They found themselves in situations where their employer had a vested interest in keeping the information they had hidden, information about matters that were of significant public interest. We are so grateful to them for their courage in speaking up and giving evidence in public.
Despite their employer’s determination to hush things up, these whistleblowers felt compelled, for both professional and personal reasons, to speak out. Whatever the consequences they have suffered, many of these whistleblowers will tell you that at the time of speaking up, they didn’t feel that they had a choice. Many say that faced with a similar situation and the benefit of hindsight, they would probably speak out again.
They are people who know that if you are employed, you have an obligation to bring knowledge of wrongdoing to your employer’s attention.
What we need to understand is that being a whistleblower and a witness are not one and the same thing.
Of course, anyone wanting to make a case against wrongdoers will be most grateful for a witness to build their case around, but there are many cases in which you can blow the whistle at work without revealing your identity or being a witness.
What should someone planning on blowing the whistle anonymously consider? The word ‘planning’ is critical here, an essential component of reporting wrongdoing yet remaining anonymous.
Here are just seven of the things you need to consider:
- Establish and weigh up the options available to you for making an anonymous report
South African employers are required to advise employees in writing as to the procedure that they should follow in making a report of wrongdoing. Ideally you should find this information on your employer’s noticeboard or intranet or in a policy manual. If your employer hasn’t provided such information, you should direct your report to the most senior person whose details you have.
- Decide on a method for making the report
Again, ideally, you have a number of reporting methods available to you to report anonymously and these are explained in your employer’s whistleblowing policy.
Depending on the employer, your only option may be to send the information to the most senior person on an anonymous basis, by mail, fax or email for example. However, even comparatively small businesses these days are appointing independent ethics hotline providers to receive their whistleblowing reports, while some well-resourced businesses have in-house whistleblowing facilities. In the case of there being an independent ethics hotline provider, go to the providers’ website. This should give you enough information to know that they are trustworthy, and most will have independent certification by The Ethics Institute of the standards they meet. These hotline providers are likely to offer multiple channels for whistleblowing: phoning a designated hotline number, completing an online form or submitting information via a reporting app, in addition to the usual mail, email and fax options.
- Where, when and how to make a report
Plan to secure your anonymity – this is not something to do in the heat of the moment. Don’t make the report using the employer’s resources – not their fax, phone or computer or email system. Plan to do it at a time when you will not be interrupted or overheard by someone who you do not want to know you have made a report. Have to send a handwritten letter to your employer? Dictate it to a family member whose handwriting is not known. Want to send an email? Create a Gmail address without your name – no harm in calling yourself firstname.lastname@example.org (although that is probably taken) – and don’t send it from the office computer.
- What to include in the report
Be specific! Don’t say you are reporting ‘Joe at the fast food outlet in Old Main Road’. Think about how many Old Main Roads there are in South Africa alone, and about the fact that some are so long that they have more than one of the same fast food outlet. There is little more frustrating than receiving an anonymous whistleblowing report that takes certain knowledge or understanding of the workplace for granted, leaving an investigator too little to work with.
- Consider: Name of organisation / division / branch / site / location / department.
- Describe the matter in as much detail as possible including date and time if reporting an event, or when it typically happens if it is a recurring matter.
- Who is involved? Are these insiders or outsiders and if outsiders, what is their relationship to the organisation? Who else knows about the matter?
- Do you have any evidence that you can include or send? Think audio clips, screen grabs, photos…but don’t try to do detective work yourself, it’s your employer’s responsibility to investigate the information you provide.
- Give investigators advice as to how to find the evidence without you (for example ‘review the swipe records / CCTV for 19:00 onwards on 6 February’, ‘ask internal audit to request the XYZ document to review’).
If you make a report via a live-answered ethics hotline you can be sure that the trained information agent will guide you through a structured approach to sharing your information, prompting you when they identify a need for additional information. The online webforms and reporting apps of most ethics hotline providers also employ a structured questioning approach to guide your information sharing.
- Don’t tell your co-workers that you are planning to or have blown the whistle
Your anonymity is in your hands, as you decide who to tell that you are planning to or have blown the whistle. Having the support of a loved one outside the workplace will be helpful, but beware the urge to confide in your colleagues.
The truth is that even if your colleagues agree with you that action needs to be taken, the prospect of the boat being rocked can be fearful for them, you may actually make them feel bad for not being as brave as you are, and they are more likely to be intimidated by a supervisor into revealing your identity. Don’t burden your colleagues with the need to keep your secret.
- If confronted by a threatened or threatening superior, don’t give in to the urge to admit you were the person who made an anonymous report
In response to your report, senior management might ask questions of a team leader heading up the area affected by a report. We hear of angry or suspicious line managers who may be justifiably or irrationally fearful of a light been shone on the team’s inner workings. They may make threatening statements and they may even lie – pretending to know who made the report in an attempt to get the unknown whistleblower to reveal themselves. Be prepared for this so you don’t fall for it! Remember that by reporting wrongdoing you are following the law, and by threatening you with adverse consequences a manager is breaking the law.
- Keep a record of having made a report
Obviously don’t keep it at work, but do keep a record of how you made the report, the time and the content. Why? Well, a time can come when you are asked why you did not speak up despite knowing that the wrongdoing had or was occurring. It’s not impossible that you and your colleagues could face disciplinary action for keeping quiet. You will want a record of how and when you did the right thing.
Remember! If you are employed you have an obligation to report wrongdoing affecting the organisation you work for to your employer. If the only way you can see to fulfil this duty is to do so anonymously, ensure that you direct the report recipient to the probelm in a way that helps them undertake an investigation without requiring your first-hand testimony.