Whistleblowing

New Zealand has joined the ranks of coun-
tries with whistleblowing legislation. Certainly not the first, will we make the same mistakes as those who have gone before?
Whistleblowing is the disclosure of information about serious wrongdoing to someone who can act responsibly on that information. It is not “leaking”, which is usually classified as the release of information for political or personal gain.
The main point here is that organisations must set up internal procedures for dealing with such disclosures.
If you don’t have procedure in place, the law allows an employee to make the disclosure to an outside body — that doesn’t include the media or an opposition MP, but it will include bodies such as the law or accountancy societies and the office of the Ombudsman.
Overseas experience so far with legislation of this type is very mixed. Analysis of the data from overseas suggests people who blow the whistle on wrongdoing will suffer. At work they can be subject to formal and informal persecution, not to mention the stress that can result in anything from alcohol abuse to divorce.
Whistleblowing is very evocative term that conjures up variety of images and it is helpful to understand where this legislation came from.
Who remembers Neil Pugmire? He was the psychiatric nurse sacked after going to an opposition politician with concerns about the release of patient into the community. Pugmire was eventually vindicated — by the courts that reinstated him, and the arrest of the patient for abducting, assaulting and attempting to sexually violate young boy.
The case was the genesis of the Protected Disclosures Bill that would compel public sector organisations to develop systems so employees could raise legitimate concerns about serious matters without fear of retribution.
After going through the select committee process, the Bill languished on the last Government’s order paper, firstly because of lack of political commitment, and then it fell into the legislation free zone in the run-up to the election.
Labour — which was indirectly responsible for the Bill — has now picked it up and not only run with it, but also extended coverage to the private sector.
While all this was going on, there were number of other public sector reminders about the need for this legislation.
Remember the Ohakea Air Force Base commander whose house renovations came close to the cost of the F16 deal? The former ACC chief who used Corporation funds to buy plane? The WINZ aeroplane charter or the IRD staff who sold information to debt collectors?
Unfortunately, passing new law won’t in itself make those things go away. How organisations and individuals respond to the new law will determine its success.
So we come back to the beginning — is this bill another layer of compliance or does it have value in its own right and can it add to the value of the organisation?
There are good cases that can be argued about clarifying responsibility, building standards of ethics and creating integrity within organisations. It can sound bit like “Peace on Earth” — great vision to be put aside for those with the luxury of time and resources to consider such “worthy” causes.
There are two other factors to consider. The first is very straightforward — there is no choice. In fact for the public sector, implementing the new law will probably form part of the duty of being “good employer”.
Secondly there are potentially big advantages in properly motivated, designed and implemented system to greatly reduce organisational risk.
Consider for moment the following: Few can argue with the concept of reducing the incidence of serious wrongdoing in an organisation, although viewing it solely as policing measure closes off range of other potential advantages. What is the value and what signals does it send your people if you provide them with channel for raising legitimate concerns — without the fear of retribution?
From that also flows the opportunity to contain or control an allegation or report of serious wrongdoing. It also provides an opportunity to resolve the matter internally. Any organisation head that has faced an angry board, minister or shareholders will probably see merit here.
At time when recruiting and keeping good people is influenced by so many factors, good disclosure system could build the sort of culture and environment that enhances reputations and employee loyalty.
If the end result is healthier work environment, then that in itself could be justification enough. The legislation is done deal. Organisations have to work out for themselves what they will make of it.
Bridget Beattie is director of human resource consultancy, Greene Hanson.

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