Blowing the whistle when things aren't right

Whistleblowers are sometimes protected - and sometimes not

What happens if you believe — or are certain — your boss is taking public funds for his own use? Or that senior management is cutting corners on staff safety? Or you discover your firm is allowing a practice which is going to cause long-term damage to the environment?

What do you do, particularly if you suspect it’s part of the organisation’s culture and speaking up will get you fired?

Nurse Neil Pugmire must have pondered ethical questions like these back in the mid-1990s when he went public with his concerns about the release of two psychiatric patients, after first approaching management and being unhappy with the response. It was the Pugmire case that lead to the Protected Disclosures Act (often called the whistleblowers’ legislation) which came into force in 2001.

Lawyer Andrew Scott-Howman writes on the Bell Gully website that the law allows employers to create internal procedures which allow staff to make disclosures about “serious wrongdoings”.

The kind of issues covered by the act, says Scott-Howman, include things like unlawful use of public funds, actions that might endanger public health or would constitute an offence and actions of a public official that are indicative of gross mismanagement.

As long as the employee follows the law’s requirements, he or she is protected against revenge from their company, “including protection against disciplinary action being taken by an employer”, says Scott-Howman.

According to the Human Resource Management Division at the University of Waikato, the person raising concerns must be an employee (this includes former employees, secondees and independent contractors), it must be about serious wrongdoings by (or in) the organisation and the person must believe (although they need not be certain) that serious wrongdoing has been committed.

The act provides “a general immunity from civil and criminal proceedings which would otherwise prevent an employee making a disclosure,” says the Waikato University website.

One issue with the New Zealand legislation, according to Bell Gully’s Scott-Howman, is that while it stipulates that public sector organisations must create internal procedures to allow for protected disclosures, it’s up to private sector organisations whether they choose to do so.

Whistleblowing legislation has become common overseas with scandals like the Enron debacle resulting in new legislation such as the Sarbanes–Oxley financial reporting law in the US. It aims to make sure corporate America is more accountable. Much like the New Zealand law, the Sarbanes–Oxley Act requires companies to set up a system which lets employees anonymously report wrongdoings.

Of course where there’s an issue to be addressed, there will be a technological solution. Soon after the act was passed, the US PC World wrote about how Anonymizer.com developed a system for employees to anonymously report corporate wrongdoings.

A company signs up for Anonymizer.com’s SECtips.com and gets a whistleblower website with its own URL and a single, company-wide password that any employee can use to make an accusation from any internet-connected computer in the world.

Finally, if you want to find out more about whistleblowing on the web check out the Boston College Law School website. The article says whistleblowing continues to be portrayed as a solitary, even heroic act.

“And while legal sites may emphasise that large economic rewards are possible for the whistleblower, the costs of whistleblowing are vividly presented, typically by the whistleblowers themselves.”

Have you ever blown the whistle or wanted to but felt too nervous? What happened? Let us know.

Mills is a Dunedin-based writer. Contact her at kirstin_mills@idg.co.nz

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