In recent years, South Africa has witnessed a concerning surge in targeted killings related to whistleblowing activities. This alarming trend underscores the critical need for organisations to identify signs that may necessitate whistleblowing and, more importantly, establish robust mechanisms for encouraging and protecting those who step forward. The decision to blow the whistle on misconduct should not be taken lightly, and recognising the warning signs is the first step in ensuring the health and integrity of a business, writes Annemari Krugel, Director and Head of the Forensics Services Department and Lance Poon, Director of Forensics Services at BDO South Africa.
Various indicators may signal the need for whistleblowing within an organisation. Clear evidence of wrongdoing, repeated unsuccessful attempts to address the issue internally, potential harm or danger to the public, and threats of retaliation are some of the more prominent signs that should prompt an employee to consider external reporting. Patterns of covering up misconduct is another clear sign that an organisation may lack accountability, requiring the need to alert external authorities.
Unfortunately, coming forward as a whistleblower in South Africa carries numerous risks. These include retaliation in the form of termination, demotion, or harassment, legal actions such as defamation lawsuits, social stigma leading to isolation, negative impacts on career prospects, emotional stress, and, evidenced by the spate of recent killings, serious personal safety concerns.
In addition, laws like the Protected Disclosures Act vary in their efficacy. This means that should a whistleblower come forward, they might still face challenges in proving retaliation or seeking redress, often leading to financial stress and strain on personal and professional relationships.
To mitigate these risks, it’s essential for whistleblowers to first seek legal advice, understand available protections, and carefully weigh the potential consequences. Whistleblower organisations such as Whistleblower House, for instance, can help in advising on legal protections and ways forward. Over and above this, though, there is a need for organisations to do their part too.
Proactive Measures for Encouraging Reporting
Organisations play a pivotal role in fostering a culture where reporting wrongdoing is not only accepted but actively encouraged. To achieve this, a business should ensure employees have access to confidential and accessible reporting mechanisms, such as anonymous platforms like our BDO Tipoffs app.
Over and above this, it’s important to foster an environment that values open communication and transparency. This means encouraging discussions about ethics and the importance of reporting misconduct, while providing comprehensive awareness training on the organisation’s code of conduct, policies, and procedures for reporting fraud and misconduct. Communications must also include sharing the outcomes of reported cases, while maintaining confidentiality that assures employees’ concerns are taken seriously.
An effective workplace culture must be led from the top down. Leadership is required then to demonstrate true commitment to addressing reported concerns transparently, which sets the tone for the entire organisation. It’s up to leaders to recognise and protect whistleblowers who report in good faith, highlighting the positive impact of their actions.
The Value of Ethical Vigilance for Companies
Investing in a whistleblowing regime and creating an environment that encourages reporting is well worth the effort for an organisation. For one thing, it can lead to early detection and resolution of misconduct that mitigates potential legal, financial, and reputational risks. It’s also in a company’s interest to promote an ethical culture as it builds trust among employees and stakeholders, encouraging greater engagement and loyalty.
From an auditing perspective, greater vigilance can help to identify compliance gaps sooner, address issues, and prevent future violations. This will not only improve the ethical behaviour of a business, but also help to foster a positive reputation that attracts stakeholders who value integrity.
Creating a safe and supportive environment for whistleblowers is not only an ethical imperative but also a strategic decision that contributes to the long-term success and sustainability of businesses in South Africa. By actively encouraging reporting and protecting those who come forward, organisations can foster a culture of integrity and accountability that benefits both employees and stakeholders alike.