Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter
…Martin Luther King, Jnr
Dear readers, last week I looked at the dilemma faced by bank staff when it comes to whistle blowing. Let us examine some of the problems that internal staff have to battle with in terms of whistle blowing despite the fact that many banks have well- documented whistle blowing policies.
Bank staff at crossroads
Standing at the crossroads, a potential internal whistle blower will think twice, and with much procrastination, ask him/herself the following pertinent questions:
“What will I get in return for blowing the whistle?”
“Will I be exposed as a traitor or a back stabber?”
“Shall I discuss with my colleagues in the office? What will they think of me?”
“What will happen to me and my family?”
“Am I ready for the consequences? I have young children.”
“How trust-worthy are the people I am reporting to?”
“But I swore an oath of secrecy, so what does this imply?”
The Psychological and Ethical Conundrum
As workers attempt to address concerns, they are sometimes met with a wall of silence and hostility by their seniors. These are some of the effects that follow:
- Complaint of persistent distress.
- Paranoid behaviour at work.
- Acute anxiety.
- Suicidal thoughts.
- Increase in stress-related illnesses.
The stresses involved in whistleblowing can be huge. As such, workers remain afraid to blow the whistle, in fear that they will not be trusted. Their fear may indeed be justified, because if a person feels threatened by the whistle blowing, he or she may resort to firing back and even resort to rumour-mongering about exaggerated offences supposed to have been caused by the whistle blower. They can even describe the person as unstable and dig into the person’s family life and report confidential matters which have no bearing on the job. Woe betide you if you happen to be of a certain category of staff sometimes misrepresented as “against”. Can you imagine cases of some staff being accused as trouble makers, mentally unstable and even “menopausal!!” This technique, labelled as ‘gaslighting’ is a common, unconventional approach used by some organizations to “manage” employees who cause difficulty by raising concerns.
The Social Impact: Isolation and Dismissal
In extreme cases, this technique involves the organization or manager proposing that the complainant’s mental health is unstable. Organizations also often attempt to ostracise and isolate whistleblowers, undermining their concerns by suggesting that these are groundless, carrying out inadequate investigations or by ignoring them altogether. Where whistleblowers persist in raising their concerns, they increasingly risk detriments such as dismissal. Following dismissal, whistleblowers may struggle to find further employment due to damaged reputations, poor references and blacklisting. The social impact of whistleblowing through loss of livelihood (and sometimes pension), and family strain may also impact on whistleblowers’ psychological well-being. Whistleblowers who continue to pursue their concerns may also face long battles with official bodies such as regulators.
Some whistleblowers suffer great injustice that may never be acknowledged or rectified. This deters others from coming forward with concerns. Thus, poor practices remain hidden behind a wall of silence, and prevent any organization from experiencing improvements expected from rectifying the misdeeds.
The Ethical Factor
The ethical implications of whistleblowing can be negative as well as positive. Sometimes, employees may blow the whistle as an act of revenge, but that is a big no, no. For instance, you were passed over during promotion time, you are suspended or even dismissed, or you are simply disgruntled with a perceived but not true unfairness. Sometimes, Management feels whistle blowers are disloyal to the company. The general question is, how can an employee report confidential matters to outsiders?
Whistleblowing is a topic of ongoing ethical debate. Some see whistleblowing as unethical for breaching confidentiality, especially in the financial service industries that handle sensitive client information. Legal protection can also be granted to protect whistleblowers, but that protection is subject to many stipulations. Hundreds of laws grant protection to whistleblowers, but stipulations can easily cloud that protection and leave whistleblowers vulnerable to retaliation and legal trouble. These days advancement in technology and communication has made whistle blowers very easy to be trackked down.
Modern methods are currently being used for whistle blower protection. Whistleblowers that may be at risk of those they are exposing are now using encryption methods and anonymous content sharing software to protect their identity.
Lessons from the KPMG Whistle Blower Survey Report
Source: KPMG whistle blowing survey report, April 2020 ***
According to a recent study (2018), by the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners (ACFE), the most common detection method for fraud are reports from whistleblowers. Whistleblower reports accounted for 40% of all detection methods for fraud in organizations. The role a whistleblowing hotline plays in fraud risk management cannot therefore be overlooked and organizations risk losing funds if employees are not empowered to blow the whistle on wrongdoing.
To quote certain relevant extracts from the report which was conducted in various sectors of the economy during the latter part of 2019, ….”KPMG undertook this study to understand how organizations use whistleblowing facilities, and how management and staff perceive this valuable tool for improvement in governance, transparency and accountability. The survey also inquired from respondents on reasons for not blowing the whistle or exposing misconduct”.
“This study is intended to help organizations understand the whistleblowing culture in Ghana and why most employees do not blow the whistle. Institutions and society at large have a unique opportunity to reflect and leverage on the outcome of this survey to improve their governance and control systems.”
The key highlights of the report emphasized four issues:
Access to a whistleblowing hotline
- The need for the availability of a whistle blower hotline
- 59% of respondents witnessed unethical behaviours but did not report−Nepotism, favouritism, discrimination and misappropriation of asset were the top unethical issues witnessed that were not reported.
Reporting channels, reminders and training
- Regular reminders on the existence of a whistleblowing hotline tend to encourage employees and enhance their confidence to report wrongdoing. − Dedicated email address is the most common medium used by whistleblowers to report issues − Organizations that issued frequent reminders on the need to report wrongdoing received more whistleblower reports than those that did not do so.
- 62% of management stated that they carry out annual training on ethics, compliance, anti-bribery and corruption for their staff members not report Unreported issues Every organization is vulnerable to fraud and misconduct and such unethical behaviours can have an adverse effect on employees and the organization itself.
Reasons for not reporting Issues:
- Lack of trust and the perception that no action will be taken were the top two reasons given by staff members for not reporting issues
- Management believes that staff members are not blowing the whistle due to fear of victimization (21%). However, fear of victimization accounted for 14% of the reasons given by staff members
****This report is highly recommended to all managers in banks.
Preventing whistle blowing:
The banking crisis of 2017-2019 that led to the revocation of several bank’s licenses had several issues which could have been solved by the Central Bank if the whistle blowing policies had been used by bankers. Even after the “sanitization exercise”, there are traces of unethical practices still in the system. There are allegations of evidence to show that whistle blowing does not usually end well both for the complainant as well as the accused. It usually ends in messy situations. Let us see what both Board of Directors and Management can reflect upon to avoid or manage the mess and the ripple effect of whistle blowing:
- Publish a whistle blowing hotline for both internal and external sources, stating the procedures involved. Meanwhile a self-audit of the bank’s systems will assist.
- Check the Management-Staff Health “Barometer.” (This can be more effective if done by an external consultant)
- Re-examine bank policies, especially the conditions of service.
- Re-examine the credit policy, portfolio and channel of approvals.
- How is the procurement policy? Examine recent procurement practices for any influences from stakeholders.
- Are staff meetings regular? Any informal appraisals?
- Any mentorship programs for staff?
- Appraisal should be both ways: (up-down and vice versa). Encourage and empower staff to be assertive and make recommendations for the improvement of their functions.
- Is information flow to the Board symmetrical or asymmetrical? Are there some details missing in management reports?
- Check staff attrition rate and the causes given. Where are staff leaving to? Are they leaving because of certain policies?
- Are the exit interviews being checked?
- Are staff durbars effective or is a culture of silence brewing?
These are my personal opinions and I will end here wishing all stakeholders in banks a great and healthy mutual relationship.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Alberta Quarcoopome is a Fellow of the Institute of Bankers, and CEO of ALKAN Business Consult Ltd. She is the Author of two books: “The 21st Century Bank Teller: A Strategic Partner” and “My Front Desk Experience: A Young Banker’s Story”. She uses her experience and practical case studies, training young bankers in operational risk management, sales, customer service, banking operations and fraud.