22.03.2021 | INGRID MARIE FOSSUM
Snitch, tell-tale or traitor are some of the words often used about whistleblowers. True, it is disloyal to expose your employer, but that is only one side of the story. Seen from the other side, it is clear that whistleblowers help create democratic progress by bringing wrongful or illegal cases out in the open. And then the whistleblower is suddenly regarded as a principled watchdog and perhaps even as a hero.
We know the international examples: Edward Snowden leaked confidential information from his employer about the United States' mass surveillance of ordinary citizens. With the illegal use of millions of Facebook users’ data, Cambridge Analytica might have helped decide the election of Donald Trump as president in 2016. The misuse of data was brought to light when a former Cambridge Analytica employee revealed it. An anonymous source leaked secret documents about offshore companies in what became known as the Panama Papers, exposing extensive and systematic tax fraud in the offshore industry. Chelsea Manning leaked military documents to WikiLeaks about the United States’ conduct in Iraq and Afghanistan. The most well-known case in Denmark is the money laundering scheme in Danske Bank, revealed by Howard Wilkinson.
“When cases of whistleblowing come into the public eye, it creates a debate that puts pressure on politicians and decision-makers regarding the need for legislation and procedures in organisations. In these circumstances, it is useful to know the population’s attitudes towards whistleblowers, seeing as this behaviour is controversial and can be divisive,” says Thomas Olesen, professor of political science from Aarhus BSS at Aarhus University, who has carried out a study on the views on whistleblowing among Danish employees and managers.
“The whistleblower is a controversial figure in a democracy because in principle he or she acts in a way disloyal to their organisation and turns on their employer. I was curious to see what people think about a controversial figure such as this,” Thomas Olesen says about the purpose of his study, which has been carried out in collaboration with Epinion.
Compared with Great Britain, Ireland, the United States and Australia, which are all further advanced in the area due to reasons such as more sophisticated legislation on whistleblowing, the support for whistleblowers is somewhat lower in Denmark. Approximately 60 per cent of the participants in the Danish study respond that they agree that whistleblowing is part of the freedom of speech and that a state ought to have regulations concerning whistleblowers. The corresponding figures from the Anglo-Saxon countries are between 70-80 per cent. According to Thomas Olesen, this is not to be understood as if the remaining 40 per cent of the Danes are against whistleblowing. For example, only 6.3 per cent disagree that whistleblowing is part of the freedom of speech, and only 10 per cent are against legislation in order to secure anonymity and financial compensation for whistleblowers.
“The reason for this relatively high level of ambivalence might be that many people have a limited knowledge on and experience with whistleblowing. Among other things, this is rooted in matters such as Denmark not having very strong legislation surrounding whistleblowers, there not being a lot of known examples of whistleblowers here compared to other countries, and the rather few large-scale debates in Denmark about whistleblowing during the last 30 years. This might explain why many people are in doubt about what whistleblowing is and consequently unsure of what to think about it,” says Thomas Olesen, at the same time pointing to the possibility that methodical differences in the way questions are phrased might help explain some of the variation.
Only 7.5 per cent of the participants in Thomas Olesen's study who have experienced something wrong or illegal at their workplace indicate that they have tried to proceed with addressing the problem. However, this figure rises to 19.5 per cent when asked if they have considered it.
Interestingly, there is no difference between the responses from employees and managers when it comes to their support for whistleblowing. Managers are often the target of whistleblowers and you could therefore expect them to respond more negatively to the phenomenon, but they do not. The support is also at the same level in both the public and the private sector.
"When cases of whistleblowing come into the public eye, it creates a debate that puts pressure on politicians and decision-makers regarding the need for legislation and procedures in organisations."
Professor, Thomas Olesen, Department of Political Science, Aarhus BSS
The Danish world record in trust might play a part in whistleblowing not (yet) being wide-spread in Denmark.
“I have a hypothesis that countries with a low level of trust in their political system and in authorities are more willing to accept whistleblowers, precisely as they circumvent the established channels, while in Denmark we have a different system building on a higher level of trust, meaning that it might take more for us to sever those ties,” says Thomas Olesen.
Denmark has an organised labour market with strong employment rights and trade unions which might create confidence in the possibility of solving problems within the existing framework and thus without resorting to whistleblowing.
Thomas Olesen has also attempted to show how the context surrounding a case of whistleblowing matters to people’s willingness to support it. The whistleblower’s motive is not unimportant in this respect. The support is most substantial when a whistleblower who is motivated by pure moral conviction tries to draw attention to injustice for the common good of society. However, our goodwill drastically decreases if we suspect that the whistleblower has underlying motives such as financial gain, hopes for a new career or promotion, or simply a desire to ruin prospects for an organisation.
The support is at its highest level when the whistleblower unveils classic democratic challenges, such as abuse of power or corruption. At the same level, we find cases in which the wrong action affects us or our safety directly, such as problems with aviation security. 73 per cent of the participants support whistleblowing in these instances.
Thomas Olesen has also examined how the support for whistleblowing is distributed across different political persuasions. Something that has not been done before.
“One might imagine that left-wing voters would be more supportive of whistleblowing than right-wing voters, seeing as it is often an attack on authorities. But this is not the case,” says Thomas Olesen.
The support for whistleblowers is broadly distributed across the political spectrum.
“I think the broad anchoring across political persuasions in Danish society is quite interesting. This could be useful knowledge for decision-makers who have to legislate in this area. Knowing that there is some common ground here makes it easier,” says Thomas Olesen.
From the end of December 2021, new EU legislation which requires all Danish companies to have a whistleblower protection framework will be in force. This applies to public as well as private organisations (with more than 50 employees).
“Danish law firms already offer services related to setting up whistleblower protection programmes. We will definitely see more of that in the future,” says Thomas Olesen.
The legislation provides the whistleblower with legal protection in the form of financial compensation and it attempts to ensure that the whistleblower does not become subject to punitive measures such as dismissal and persecution. The consequences of blowing the whistle can be tough.
“We are talking about an organisation that feels betrayed and threatened. The organisation would prefer to shut down the case and make sure that no scandal is made public. For this reason, the whistleblower is always in a precarious and vulnerable situation,” says Thomas Olesen.
This leads us to the costs of whistleblowing and the question of why many people doubt whether they should speak up or not.
“It is typically a drawn-out process during which they struggle with themselves. Should I do it? Should I not? Hopefully, it will be easier for them to make the decision to expose wrongdoing if they know they have the support of the public,” says Thomas Olesen.
He emphasises the advantages of having well-established channels for whistleblowing in organisations. This means you do not have to go the whole way as famous whistleblowers Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning and Howard Wilkinson have had to do. For these people, there is no way back. Snowden ended up in exile in Russia, Manning was sentenced to 35 years of prison for espionage but was later pardoned by president Obama and released, while Wilkinson was fired.
“It can have major personal consequences. You sever the ties with your organisation and in some instances, even with your line of work. Your life changes. There is a before and after and you will need to reinvent yourself as a person. Becoming a public figure also holds consequences for your family. To most people, this is a type of attention you would rather be without,” says Thomas Olesen.
Indeed, research shows that most of the well-known and lesser-known whistleblowers first try the internal channels. The press represents a last resort if your concerns are not heard internally.
“People are loyal to their organisation and line of work. They might have worked there for 20-30 years and will have invested a lot of their professional identity in the workplace. That is why going public is a big step. It changes your identity, professionally as well privately. They only take this step because their moral compass is challenged in such a way that they need to react, and because internal attempts at addressing the problem have failed,” says Thomas Olesen.
This is confirmed by the results of Thomas Olesen’s study. Most Danes will begin by talking to a colleague (36.8%) or the management (50.6%), while only 2.4% will go directly for an external channel.
Only 4.8 per cent respond that they would not react at all if they discovered something amiss at their workplace.
What comes first - whistleblowing and then the need for legislation? Or legislation, encouraging more people to report incidents?
61.6 per cent of the Danes in Thomas Olesen’s study see a need for legislation and think that all companies and organisations should have procedures for whistleblowing, which allow employees to report information on critical incidents in their company or organisation anonymously. If you add the 30.6 per cent who are uncertain and who respond that they neither agree nor disagree with this statement or say they don’t know, we have a significant majority of the population.
Greater knowledge of the population’s attitude to whistleblowing combined with legislation and procedures in organisations will make it easier for people to take the big step and reveal it whenever they experience something wrong, e.g. sexual harassment or tax fraud in their workplace. Having internal channels for anonymous reporting allows the whistleblower to avoid the most severe consequences. You will not have to knock on your boss’s door, reveal yourself and risk punitive measures. The risk of losing your job and income is especially important to the Danes when they consider the potential of engaging in whistleblowing themselves.
Whistleblowers are a valuable source of truth in a democracy and we would not want to be without them: “
As employees in an organisation, whistleblowers possess privileged knowledge. We have critical journalists and other political figures who try to uncover irregularities and scandals, but this is a lot harder to do from the outside. Whistleblowers have something unique to offer. So to speak, their position as an insider means that they have front row seats to the illegal and immoral actions in an organisation,” says Thomas Olesen.