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Whistleblower series: What do workplace whistleblowers report?

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In the last blog in this series, I wrote about the reporting channels that organizations may use to allow whistleblowers to report wrongdoing. In this blog, I’ve provided an overview of the types of wrongdoing that whistleblowers report.

I’ve chosen this topic because many may be unfamiliar with what workplace whistleblowing actually “looks” like. While it is true that we at times hear about whistleblowing in the media, the cases we hear about may not be a good representation of the types of wrongdoing that workplace whistleblowers typically report.

Before I get into the categories of wrongdoing, it is important to remember that what whistleblowers report may be shaped by how an organization defines “wrongdoing.” For example, if an organization permits only reports relating to financial matters, then they may not receive reports relating to other types of wrongdoing.

Here are some of the issues that workplace whistleblowers report:

    • Conflicts of interest. This is a big one and encompasses a variety of issues. Preferential treatment in hiring is a common one. For example, an employee may report that a manager is hiring their family members to fill vacant positions. Another example could be a romantic relationship in the workplace that a whistleblower alleges is resulting in preferential treatment. A whistleblower could also report concerns that an employee is awarding contracts to vendors with whom they have a personal relationship. All of these issues are types of conflicts of interest that are often addressed in an organization’s code of ethics/conduct.
    • Fraud and financial irregularities. Organizations obviously have a great interest in hearing about wrongdoing relating to financial matters. Depending on the type of organization, however, this may not be the most common type of wrongdoing that gets reported. An example of wrongdoing in this category could be an allegation than an employee is receiving monetary “kickbacks” from a vendor in exchange for awarding them a contract. Another example could be an employee who is using a company credit card for personal use.
    • Misuse or theft of assets. A whistleblower may report that an employee is using an asset belonging to the organization in a way that was not intended, or removing an asset from the workplace without authorization. For example, it may be alleged that an employee is bringing home tools that are intended to be used in the workplace.
    • Mismanagement of resources. Here, a whistleblower may report that an employee or employees (usually those in a managerial position) are mismanaging a project, other employees, a part of the business, etc., in such a way as to waste the organization’s resources or hinder the organization’s work greatly. Note that the threshold for accepting to investigate such reports can be quite high (for example, some whistleblower statutes describe this type of wrongdoing as “gross mismanagement” in the work of the public service).
    • Harassment and discrimination. One-on-one issues between employees are often best dealt with through other channels in the organization. That said, it is not uncommon for employees to use a whistleblowing channel to disclose harassment and discrimination. Some organizations may accept these as reports of wrongdoing while some may choose to exclude them altogether from the whistleblower program (and deal with them through human resources, for example). In some cases, however, organizations may accept these reports if it is alleged that the harassment and discrimination is widespread (i.e., it is having an impact on many employees) and hindering the proper functioning of the organization.
    • Health and safety. Organizations usually have procedures in place for reporting these matters. However, employees may feel uncomfortable using the regular reporting channels and do at times report concerns about health and safety using a whistleblowing channel. (Handling these types of matters through a whistleblower program is not always desirable given the urgency that may be involved in the situation being disclosed, and that there are often strict processes that must be followed to investigate concerns.)

In addition to the above, whistleblowers may disclose other breaches of internal policies or even of legislation, such as the Criminal Code. In my experience, the type of wrongdoing can really vary from one report to the next. However, it may be the case that an organization is able to observe trends in the types of issues that are being reported. From a compliance perspective, these trends can serve as useful information for organizations.

In my next blogs, I will be discussing intake and investigation strategies for whistleblower reports. Stay tuned

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