Integrity is doing the right thing, even when no one is watching.
–– C.S. Lewis
My colleague and friend Philmore Alleyne, head of the Department of Management Studies, Cave Hill Campus, has devoted a considerable amount of his academic career to assessing and detailing corporate ethics and whistleblowing as a tool for exposing all types of corruption, albeit in the private sector. And perhaps he is the more qualified individual to handle this issue.
Currently he is engaged in a multi-country assessment of the perception of whistle-blowing as an effective tool to ferret out misbehaviour and other forms of corruption.
It will be interesting to read the results of this mammoth study upon its completion.
However, let it not be said, given my discomfort in entering unchartered terrain, that I will avoid what is uncomfortable.
So I will take a stab at it.
Transparency International contends corruption often goes unchallenged when people do not speak out about it, and that witness accounts do not only offer invaluable insights into corruption but are also powerful tools in the fight against it, saving firms and the government tremendous resources –– not to speak of the lives which can be protected.
But what is whistle-blowing? Whistle-blowing can be defined as “the voluntary release of non-public information, as a moral protest, by a member or former member of an organization (the reporter) outside the normal channels of communication to an appropriate audience about illegal and/or immoral conduct in the organization or conduct in the organization that is opposed in some significant way to the public interest”.
(John R. Boatright, 2000, p. 109).
An effective whistle-blowing environment depends not only on the actions of the whistle-blower, who observes or detects wrongdoing and issues a report, but also the authority figure who receives said report.
Clearly, this is not an easy issue to deal with for the simple reason that we are small states, where almost everyone knows each other and where there is intense partisan loyalties. It is for that reason too that many politicians are reluctant to support the idea of full disclosure of contributions for electoral purposes. A decision to report the reportee (the individual who is engaged in fraud, malpractice, other forms of misuse of office) can be quite costly to the whistle-blower.
There is ample research done in the area to suggest that beyond the issue of closeness of the environment, the act of whistle-blowing requires the whistle-blower to resolve the conflict between personal values and workplace wrongdoing. Such a reflection and final resolution requires the individual to firstly determine whether or not the firm (in the private sector) or the government department or statutory corporation (public sector), either through its product or policy will do serious and considerable harm to employees or to the public and that speaking out would be in the public interest.
Secondly, the individual must resolve whether or not his/her immediate superior should be informed of the concerns. If this route is chosen then should the superior fail to effectively respond, the individual ideally ought to attempt to use the internal procedures and avenues to resolve the issue.
This in itself is fraught with personal danger as the whistle-blower may become a target for retaliatory action, especially if there is widespread knowledge and silence around the issue. But there is the other option to the potential whistle-blower. That is the external option, such as going to the media for example when the internal option is deemed to be too risky, or otherwise fails.
Whatever option is used, whistleblowers will more than likely be negatively impacted by their decision.
Whether in Barbados, the Caribbean or the rest of the world, how many of us have witnessed any or all of the following at our workplaces. An employee discovering the boss is using public or corporate credit cards to pay for his private automobile, refurbishing his home, paying for his girlfriend to accompany him on business trips.
An employee discovering the boss was double-dipping; that is, having his overseas trips paid by a third party, yet billing the company.
An employee rejecting the sexual advances of her/his boss and is subsequently discriminated against in a promotion decision.
If you witnessed employees stealing office equipment, whether computer or cellphones from the office, a contractor giving an employee an envelope stacked full with money after being awarded a contract by a government agency, a police officer engaging in illegal, immoral or illegitimate practices, a judicial officer accepting bribes from say a drug pusher, what would you do?
Would you keep silent? Why? Because it is easier and safer!
Terance D. Miethe, author of the 1999 publication Whistle-Blowing At Work: Tough Choices In Exposing Fraud, Waste And Abuse On The Job, contends that whatever you do, it is a no-win situation, for you run the risk of being labelled as untrustworthy, disloyal and dangerous.
Often it is the silent majority who are rewarded for their silence and complicity for they are deemed loyal.
Miethe, therefore cautions that unless an employee is totally indispensable to the organization (for instance, married to the chief executive officer or possessing skills that cannot be replaced), any act of defiance of company norms by whistle-blowing (airing dirty laundry) is tantamount to committing professional suicide, which will invariably result in “swift, certain, and severe” forms of organizational retaliation.
Among the many forms of retaliation are loss of job, lack of promotion, harassment and constant insults and abuses, forced resignation and shunning by co-workers, and severe economic and psychological harm may haunt you for the rest of your life.
The widely publicized debacle of CLICO (Barbados and Trinidad and Tobago) caused tremendous anxiety. Did anyone at these companies, the legal firms, the accounting firms detect and see what was occurring? And did no one think to speak out? Perhaps much of the angst and pain that thousands of policyholders have had to endure in the last few years could have been avoided by a reporter (the whistle-blower).
Additionally the financial burden because of the failure of the company now rests on government and therefore taxpayers, and most certainly the poor.
Above everything else whistle-blowers must be provided with adequate protection in law. Unfortunately, globally this is the one area which is deemed to have great relevance to securing the integrity of the national system and therefore controlling corruption, that is the most resistant to legislating. For example, only four of the 27 European Union (EU) countries have advanced legal frameworks for whistle-blower protection: Luxembourg, Romania, Slovenia and Britain.
In Britain, the law covering whistle-blowing –– the Public Interest Disclosure Act, 1998, which is seen as the epitome of good protection for whistle-blowers –– provides protection from dismissal and victimization to workers who raise genuine concerns about “malpractice” at work. It is part of broader employment legislation, including protection from reprisals such as unfair or constructive dismissal, harassment and bullying; a right to compensation for damage resulting from any of the above; and a right to reinstatement should a whistle-blower be dismissed as a result of their actions. In Barbados, for example, the Employment Rights Act, 2012 may provide some protection for whistle-blowers since the act addresses the issue of unfair dismissal. However this does not provide the whistle-blower with any insulation from the other incendiary negative consequences of the action.
Regrettably many legal provisions for the protection of whistle-blowers, where they exist, may in fact simply be wastepaper since they contain loopholes and exceptions.
In effect, according to Transparency International, the end result may well be that the individual who is able to achieve the moral courage to inform in the belief he/she is protected from retaliation “could discover, after they blow the whistle, that they actually have no legal recourse”.
So given the huge fear of a backlash against whistle-blowers, which makes many people afraid to speak out, and the size of Caribbean countries, which makes remaining anonymous a near impossibility, will we ever see its enactment throughout the Caribbean? In that light, my friend Philmore Alleyne agrees “the greatest obstacle to whistle-blowing is the level of personal cost. That is, the fear of retaliation, harassment and victimization. So how do you reduce this fear? You may have trusted channels and adequate legislation that incentivize whistle-blowing, protect the whistle-blower and punish wrongdoers who fret the whistle-blower. Research has shown that there are no positive stories coming from actual whistle-blowers.
It has been a living hell”.
Take for example the 2012 case of Maurice McCabe and John Wilson, Irish police officers who found evidence traffic offences were being tampered with to the tune of €1.5 million a year. Not only were their reports ignored by their superiors and the police commissioner but also the prime minister. For acting ethically, they were denied further access to the police database, making their job impossible.
They faced unwarranted visits by police officers to their homes, they were routinely stopped and searched without warrant and they faced other forms of reprisals which forced one to resign. Fortunately the media highlighted the case and eventually the minister for justice under whose ministry the police fell and the police commissioner resigned and took early retirement. So blowing the whistle was effective.
And, of course, who will forget the whistle-blowers in the tobacco industry. Yes, there was tremendous personal cost, but that action has saved lives –– which is immeasurable, not to speak of the billions and billions of dollars insurance companies and governments had to spend on the health of citizens as a result of tobacco smoking. But . . . . Until next week, stay safe, do the right thing; let’s find our courage!
Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear, not absence of fear.
–– Mark Twain
(Cynthia Barrow-Giles is a senior lecturer in political science at the University of the West Indies, Cave Hill Campus.)