The Hub Dr. Helen Lam: Whistle-blowing in the digital age

Dr. Helen Lam: Whistle-blowing in the digital age

Tax evasion and price fixing. Corruption and surveillance. Cover ups and environmental contamination.

Whistle-blowing is in an important facet of exposing wrongdoing. 

Whether it happens through WikiLeaks or a social media site, online whistle-blowing is becoming an ever increasingly important tool. Dr. Helen Lam, Athabasca University (AU) Faculty of Business professor, explored this emerging phenomenon in a recently published paper.

Though whistle-blowing itself has been around for a long time, the digital form has emerged within recent years and is changing the landscape with its spontaneity and reach.

“Anyone consciously considering whistle-blowing needs to be cautious about how, when, and where they do so, considering the potential repercussions,” she said. “Even if someone isn’t intending to blow the whistle, posting organizational wrongdoing online may have consequences.”

Lam’s research, “Whistle-blowing in the Digital Era,” was recently published in New Technology, Work and Employment. She explores the motives, processes, and outcomes associated with this public disclosure of organizational wrongdoing. With an expanded framework for exploring the motivations of a whistle-blower in the digital context, she concludes with a number of recommendations for whistle-blowers, organizations, and legislators.

Exposing the wrongdoings of an organization through social media or other digital platforms can be very impactful. Recent examples of police brutality and military intelligence leaks may be top of mind for many when thinking about digital whistle-blowing, but there are several things that should be considered before divulging confidential information to an external audience.

“The online environment offers a false sense of security in terms of privacy. When posting organizational wrongdoing via social media, people may erroneously believe that they can limit the sharing to a small group. However, even posting about a frustrating day at the job alone on social media to a supposedly “private” group could result in the employee becoming an inadvertent whistle-blower, if the posting is circulated by others. ”

– Dr. Helen Lam

Considerations for employees

Employees need to be aware of the organizational policies and the code of conduct they agree to when signing on with their company. If what they intend to disclose publicly and online could cause harm to the organization, disciplinary action and even potential litigation could be taken against the employee.

To mitigate potential repercussions, case law in Canada suggests that employees should voice their concerns via internal means in what is called an “up-the-ladder” approach. This means that all concerns need to be communicated internally through the channels designated by the organization to handle employee concerns, before online whistle-blowing is considered. It gives the employer or organization an opportunity to address the complaint.

“There is a duty of loyalty for the employee to their employer,” Lam said. “Exceptions are rare and apply only when danger is imminent or where blowing the whistle internally would be obviously counterproductive.”

Anonymity isn't guaranteed

If the first attempt to resolve an issue is done internally and appropriate remediation is not conducted by the organization, an employee should determine whether there are laws that protect individuals who disclose confidential information about their organization externally.

“Case law has indicated that people really shouldn’t have much expectation of privacy when posting on social media,” Lam said. “Usernames might be changed, but IP or email addresses could be unearthed when the service provider is summoned to release the information.”

Making an anonymous claim may seem like a safe avenue to pursue when deciding to do whistle-blowing online, but anonymity is never guaranteed. Platforms try to ensure that complete privacy is possible, but anything posted online can lead back to the whistle-blower.

If an individual does decide that online whistle-blowing is best suited to communicate the wrongdoing they have observed, the evidence provided must be objective. It is also advisable to seek professional advice about protections and liabilities when there could be major repercussions for the whistle-blower.

“Wrongdoing does not refer to some kind of personal grievances, or ‘I don’t like certain management practices,’” she said. “Significant impact on the general public by illegal and unethical acts in relation to safety, finances, and environmental concerns should be the driving force behind exposing an organization.”

If concrete evidence is not provided, the exposure could have legal repercussions and invite reprisals for the individual although reprisals (especially illegitimate ones or in more subtle forms) may well happen too even when the wrongdoing is evident.

Walk the talk

When faced with being called out for wrongdoings, organizations should have measures to address issues proactively and reactively. To prevent whistle-blowing from occurring in the first place, an organizational culture of ethics, accountability, and transparency should enable employees to raise criticisms without fear. Employees should feel like they are involved and empowered to prevent problems that could lead to whistle-blowing in the first place.

“Leaders and organizations have to walk the talk, not just welcome employee feedback, but actually solicit it,” Lam said.

When issues do arise and an organization is faced with online whistle-blowing, a pre-established process can help to guide the organization’s response. It should be guided by key organizational principles and priorities, and not short-term, defensive responses.

Safeguards and protections

It’s also an important opportunity for the government to consider updating regulations to address safeguards and protections. Because the online world is changing at such a rapid pace, legislation on whistle-blowing is lagging behind and there is also a huge variance between jurisdictions.

It’s important that governments and organizations aim to consider amendments and updates that advance the positive outcomes of whistle-blowing, while lessening the negative ones.

About Dr. Helen Lam

Having spent 12 years as a practitioner, Dr. Lam enjoys linking theories with pragmatic practices. She has always been interested in the ethos of ethics, including employee and human rights. Over the years, her curiosity expanded further into emerging changes within the workplace.

Interested in learning more about organizational analysis? Consider taking one of the courses she teaches within the Faculty of Business.

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  • August 7, 2020