This blog post is a guest post from Elizabeth Ticehurst, a a Principal Lawyer at Activate Workplace Law, a boutique firm specialising in whistleblowing and employment law. She helps organisations with all aspects of whistleblowing, from establishing a policy and program framework, to training senior managers and advising on individual reports.
The world and the modern workplace have changed in an unforeseeable way in a very short period of time. Six months ago, organisations in Australia were putting in place whistleblower policies to meet a 1 January 2020 deadline under the Corporations Act and establishing whistleblowing programs to meet their compliance obligations. None of those preparations were made with a pandemic in mind. Yet even in these much-changed times, an effective whistleblowing program remains an important part of corporate governance, and in many ways, it is more important now than ever. Here are three ways that whistleblowing has been affected by COVID-19.
COVID-19 Related Disclosures
Things have changed very quickly in the last two months. Guidelines and regulations have changed by the day, and workplaces have scrambled to respond in an organised fashion. People, being people, have also responded to the pandemic in different ways, ranging from a relaxed “she’ll be right” attitude through to an insistence on adhering to every detail of the guidelines and even policing the behaviour of others. Add to this environment a hefty dose of anxiety about an unseeable and potentially deadly enemy and it is unsurprising that whistleblowing disclosures relating to COVID-19 have increased.
COVID-19 related disclosures tend to be about someone in the organisation not observing guidelines about social distancing or quarantine, or about the organisation not doing enough to protect its workers from infection. In some cases, these disclosures uncover potentially serious breaches of health-related guidelines, but often they also arise from misunderstandings. An example involves an anonymous disclosure about an Australian teacher who had taken a trip to China over the year-end holidays and then returned to work. The disclosure implied that the teacher had not observed self-isolation guidance, but in fact she had not returned to work until more than 30 days had passed since her re-entry.
Bullying and Workplace Conflicts
Personal work-related grievances do not qualify for protection as whistleblowing disclosures under the Corporations Act but that does not stop people from reporting them through a whistleblowing program. Reliable figures are not available due to the confidential nature of most reporting programs but it is estimated that a majority of reports involve at least some element of a work-related grievance. In a situation where people have been ordered to work from home for an extended period, it follows that opportunities for workplace conflict are greatly decreased. Interactions through video conferencing and telephone are only for limited periods of time and appear to be less stressful for many than face to face interactions in a workplace setting.
The exception of course is for organisations with workers who are unable to work from home and who may be experiencing added anxiety about their risk of exposure, or a greatly increased workload due to the pandemic (an obvious example being healthcare workers and cleaners).
Fraud and Corruption
Supervision of an entire workforce where all employees are all working remotely is challenging at best. Controls that work well in a business as usual environment may not be appropriate with a dispersed workforce. As others have noted, there has already been an increase in fraud and corruption type behaviour in Australia, with employees being a material source of this risk. Whilst businesses work to implement new detection and investigation measures, an effective whistleblowing program remains as an essential part of an organisation’s fraud detection and prevention strategy.
The challenges of managing a remote workforce have also brought into focus the value of having an independent and anonymous whistleblowing channel that does not rely on employees making personal contact. Programs that rely on one or two reporting officers to handle reports may find themselves stretched if those officers are unavailable or are not working in an ideal environment to take confidential disclosures. Having multiple channels available will increase the likelihood of reports being made, as disclosers will choose the method most comfortable for them.