7 February 2012

Yesterday the Canadian Federal Integrity Commission released the findings of qualitative research undertaken in December to assess the attitudes of Canadian public servants to whistleblowing and the disclosure of wrongdoing in the workplace. It is a very readable report which is probably just as applicable in New Zealand.

Canadian officials don’t have a clear idea of the sort of misconduct for which there are statutory protections. Few had much idea of the mechanisms for reporting. The general view is that whistleblowing is perjorative. It has negative connotations for many – “carrying a grudge, seeking vengeance, snitching, not being a team player and seeking attention” although some associated it with principled people who were “courageous, brave or altruistic”.

There was consensus that there is a responsibility to disclose wrongdoing when encountering it. However the same sorts of constraints were identified that New Zealand State servants alluded to in the 2010 Integrity and Conduct survey – about the certainty or proof, the gravity of the wrong doing, its frequency or consistency, the effectiveness of other ways to resolve the situation and the possible negative impact on the work setting.

Managers said the “right things”. They unanimously referred to the responsibility to disclose, the need for rectitude, professionalism and ethical conduct, discussing issues with staff and giving serious attention to reports of wrongdoing.

Participants in the survey had no difficulty in specifying the conditions that would encourage them to report wrongdoing and those things that put them off!  But a discouraging finding is that “most employees see reprisals for disclosing wrongdoing as a real possibility, primarily because of the subtle form they can take.”

The New Zealand experience is unlikely to be any different. Although a primary recommendation of the State Services Commissioner after the 2010 integrity survey was that agencies should do more to promote awareness of the Protected Disclosures Act, the probability is that there is no agency that has a continuing programme to familiarise staff with those provisions.

The views of Canadians are summed up in the belief that the wise official knows that you “Don’t stick your neck out”. The common perceptions were:

“Disclosing a wrongdoing is a career-limiting move.”

“There is no real protection for disclosers of wrongdoing.”

“It’s typically the disclosure of wrongdoing that gets punished, not the perpetrator(s).”

“These types of stories never end well.”

“Show me that these stories have happy endings,” said one respondent. “Show me the discloser who got a promotion and the wrongdoer who lost his job.”