New research busts whistleblower bad treatment myth — 24.10.2007
Delivering findings from the Australian Research Council-funded Whistling While They Work project, Griffith Law School Senior Research Fellow and project leader Dr AJ Brown said only 22 per cent of the whistleblowers surveyed said they were treated badly by management or co-workers, with 78 per cent reporting they were treated either well or the same by management and co-workers.
“The figure is still too high, but fortunately is much lower than expected,” Dr Brown said.
“Bad treatment or harm suffered by whistleblowers was most likely intimidation, harassment, heavy scrutiny of work, ostracism, unsafe or humiliating work, and other workplace-based negative behaviour.
“Those that reported bad treatment felt most of it came from management, rather than colleagues or co-workers, and even successful whistleblowers report adverse psychological experiences from their whistleblowing, although not as adverse as those treated badly.
“The research shows that whistleblowers can blow the whistle on serious wrongdoing without necessarily suffering, but only if they do it internally and carefully, have realistic expectations, and organise their own support,” Dr Brown said.
The first report from the project also concludes that agencies need to better ensure their managers are equipped to take responsibility for their role in receiving disclosures and managing whistleblowing. It says governments need to reform legislation to ensure best practice whistleblowing systems in agencies, including more central coordination, provisions to recognise public whistleblowing, and provision for effective whistleblower compensation.
“The fact that whistleblowing is clearly not confined to rare acts of ‘troublemaking’ creates a new obligation on agencies and governments to ensure they have effective systems for managing and protecting whistleblowers.” Dr Brown said.
“Far from showing that wrongdoing is necessarily rife in the public sector, the results suggest that whistleblowing should be accepted as a healthy and positive element of organisational life, helping ensure that government operates with integrity.”
The new study – which is part of the largest multi-jurisdictional study on public integrity issues ever undertaken in Australia – suggests that as many as 460,000 public servants may have formally reported wrongdoing within or by their organisation over the last two years, and that around 197,000 of these could be public interest whistleblowers.
“Assuming each of these officials only reported on one type of relevant wrongdoing once in the two year period, these percentages suggest that each weekday in Australia, possibly about 380 public servants might blow the whistle on a matter of potential public interest,” Dr Brown explained.
“Previously, the best Australian studies had indicated that perhaps only 5-6% of public officials reported serious misconduct internally,” Dr Brown said. “But this suggested a very small amount of public interest whistleblowing compared with similar US studies.”
The survey of 23,000 public servants was conducted in 2006-2007 across 118 agencies of the Commonwealth, NSW, Queensland and Western Australian governments. It attracted 7,663 responses – the largest survey on public integrity issues ever undertaken in Australia.
Other key results include that:
- 71% of respondents had observed at least one instance of wrongdoing in their organisation in the previous two years.
- 61% of respondents observed wrongdoing they regarded as serious
- 28% of respondents formally reported the most serious wrongdoing they observed
- 20% of respondents are estimated to be ‘whistleblowers’
- 12% of respondents are estimated to be public interest whistleblowers (e.g. reporting corruption, fraud, maladministration and serious misconduct).
The Whistling While They Work project is led by Griffith University and involves a team including Dr Brown, Professors Richard Wortley and Paul Mazerolle, Dr Rodney Smith (University of Sydney), Peter Roberts (Charles Sturt University), Associate Professor Margaret Mitchell (Edith Cowan University) and Associate Professor Paul Latimer (Monash University).
The research is funded by the universities, the Australian Research Council and a consortium of 14 public integrity agencies including the Commonwealth, NSW, Queensland and WA Ombudsman’s offices, the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC), Queensland Crime and Misconduct Commission (CMC) and WA Corruption and Crime Commission (CCC).
The APSAC conference is a joint initiative of Australia’s leading anti-corruption bodies comprising the NSW ICAC, the Queensland CMC and the Western Australian CCC. The inaugural conference has attracted up to 500 Australian and international participants. For more information about the conference visit www.icac.nsw.gov.au/conference2007.
Media note: Dr AJ Brown will be available for media interviews at the conclusion of today’s session.
Dr AJ Brown - 0414 782 331
Nicole Thomas (ICAC) – 0417 467 801
Leanne Hardyman (CMC) – 0409 799 120
Owen Cole (CCC) - 08 9215 4802