The value of the whistle-blower
Thursday, August 16 2012
The word “Integrity” has a wide meaning. It is defined in Law, such as in the Integrity in Public Life Act and the Companies Act 1995, in anti-corruption legislation and in regulations and policies governing many companies. Many companies in Trinidad and Tobago develop policies adapted from governance principles and practices established in the USA and Europe. In fact, some local companies are obliged to comply with certain international standards and codes. There are many Boards of local companies that wish to govern based on the utmost integrity in all aspects of their business. For that purpose, there are widely available and well-established principles, guidelines and standards.
In the context of the above, “whistleblowing” has a significant place in terms of a tangible, anti-corruption measure, based on Law and regulations. It has a high social and moral content.
We are frequently reminded that in order for evil to flourish, all that is required is for good men and women to do nothing. In economics we justify unpleasant action by considering whether the action improves the situation of some members of the community without worsening the lot of anyone. The moral perspective for whistleblowing is somewhat similar. The societal perspective is “will it cause a great deal of good without harm to innocent people?”
Whistle-blowing refers to the act of any employee or official who, through the approved process, in good faith, discloses to the relevant authorities or designated officials the facts and circumstances of any wrongdoing of which he/she has become aware and believes to be unfair, unjust or otherwise detrimental to the common good or welfare of employees or to the company.
Should employees be required to report any suspected or presumed incidents of illegal behaviour in the activities of the company? Should that include serious misconduct or serious infringement of the company’s rules, policies or guidelines? Should it extend to any action that is or could be harmful to the mission or reputation of the company?
Employees who are aware of irregularities or other possible wrongdoing within an organisation do have a moral duty and a responsibility to disclose that information. They should do so only to designated company officials or authorities who are outside of the control and influence of management. This has to be done through an approved process. There must be a policy in place. There must be rules. For example, individuals concerned about possible wrongdoing within the organisation, who honestly express their concerns based on facts and reasoned judgment, must be treated fairly. On the other hand, those who find themselves the subject or target of whistleblowers’ reports and accusations must also be treated fairly.
The Directors of the company and the Chief Executive Officer must guarantee that employees who, in good faith, and with reasonable facts and evidence, disclose perceived wrongdoing to the designated officials inside the organization will be protected from retaliatory actions by the management or the company. Can, and will, whistle-blowers rely on this guarantee when there have been many cases of whistleblowers experiencing great suffering as a result of their noble actions?
Such guarantees must be monitored by a legal authority beyond the reach of executive management, directors and politicians. Perhaps the Integrity Commission, in the interest of national integrity, should be empowered to investigate violations of this guarantee. When a whistle-blower acts in the best interests of society, he or she must receive the highest level of protection. The Integrity Commission, apart from the courts, is the only institution empowered with independent authority to deal with integrity issues both in the private and public sectors.
Whistle-blowing takes personal integrity and resolve. Whistle-blowers must first gather evidence before blowing the whistle. Whistle-blowing can discourage the low-level, systemic corruption that plagues our country. It can stop large-scale corruption. It can help the police service to be effective in fighting white-collar crime. It can support Government’s aim to unearth and eliminate malpractice and fraud in state enterprises.
There should be a standard whistle-blowing policy for state enterprises with a central agency responsible for monitoring the conduct of the policy by state enterprises and for monitoring investigations. Private sector organisations should develop a standard policy with recommended practices and encourage their members to implement the policy. The Government should make such policy standard for agencies receiving grant funds.
This article was contributed by the Trinidad and Tobago Transparency Institute
The views expressed in this column are not necessarily those of Guardian Life of the Caribbean Limited.