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Whistleblowing: what to know before you speak out

By Nicola Field

Don’t dob. Keep shtum. Don’t tell tales. Mind your own. They’re the unwritten rules of Australian culture. But Sylvain Mansotte, co-founder and CEO of whistleblowing app Whispli, says managers and leaders must nurture a culture that protects those who are prepared to speak out.

In Australia, dobbing is not seen as fair dinkum. Despite targeted campaigns to identify tax cheats, drug dealers, misbehaving clerics, and even perpetrators of sexual harassment in the workplace, there is considerable social pressure not to say a word.

French expat Sylvain Mansotte knows all about this pressure.

Back in 2012, Mansotte had just started working for Australian construction giant Leighton Contractors (now CIMIC Group) when he uncovered a massive fraud.

As part of a small procurements team, Mansotte was reviewing a number of the company’s vendors, when he came across one supplier called ‘Acorn Cottage’. It stood out because the oddly named Acorn Cottage had invoiced Leighton to the tune of more than A$2 million over the previous 12 months.

Mansotte dug deeper. He contacted Leighton’s accounts payable team, who said the payments were for ‘consulting services’. Still not comfortable, Mansotte ran a few simple online searches. That was when his world turned upside down.

It turned out that Acorn Cottage was owned by a company employee. But not just any staff member.

The man behind Acorn Cottage was Damian O’Carrigan, long-term (30-year) employee of Leighton and (then) finance manager for Queensland, with responsibility for approving payments up to A$5 million.

A quick review by Mansotte confirmed that Acorn Cottage had issued more than 300 invoices to Leighton. The invoices, lodged fortnightly and sometimes weekly, ranged from A$10,000 to A$205,000. It was later confirmed that, after receiving payment, O’Carrigan transferred the cash from Acorn Cottage to his own Commonwealth Bank account.

Of course, Mansotte had no idea of this at the time. But he did the maths. If he was right, O’Carrigan had defrauded the company out of A$20.7 million over a 12-year period.

At that point Mansotte wanted to blow the whistle. The challenge was that he was new to the company – still on probation, and a long way down the chain of command from O’Carrigan. Moreover, he had a wife and young family to support.

Like many people who uncover fraud and corruption, Mansotte had doubts. He was especially unsure that his assumptions were correct.

At the time, Leighton offered whistleblowers access to a confidential hotline. But with his distinctive French accent, Mansotte knew his voice made him easy to identify. Unsure how deep the fraud ran, he wanted to remain anonymous.

Luckily, Mansotte’s immediate manager was also new to the company. Mansotte figured that a fellow newcomer couldn’t also be in on the scheme.

Mansotte’s instincts were right. He shared his suspicions with his manager, and within minutes the fraud was reported to the CEO. In a matter of weeks, O’Carrigan was sentenced to 15 years imprisonment. An estimated A$4 million was later recovered but much of the money had been spent on high-rolling good times, and Leighton was left with a loss of around A$16 million. Ironically, 58-year-old O’Carrigan was just weeks away from retiring.

The experience gave Mansotte a first-hand understanding of how hard it can be to speak out about workplace misconduct. It inspired his launch of Whispli, a secure, anonymous, two-way communication platform enabling private conversations between individuals.

Whistleblowers face a backlash

According to Mansotte, there is something of a common thread to the sorts of activities reported to Whispli.

He explains, “Our Whispli clients are reporting back to us on a regular basis, and it is fair to say that between 70% and 80% of reports are HR-related, for example, bullying, harassment, sexual harassment and other employee relations issues. The remaining 20% would cover other types of misconduct or wrongdoing such as suspicion of theft, fraud or corruption.”

The success of Whispli reinforces workplace fears of negative repercussions for speaking up about wrongdoing in the workplace. A Griffith University study found more than 80% of whistleblowers face a backlash for speaking up.

Mansotte explains the reluctance of whistleblowers, saying, “Pretty simply, it comes down to two feelings – fear, and in some instances, shame.

“Everyone fears the response of the organisation once they make that initial disclosure: Will I keep my job? Will I get the promotion? Am I right in my assumptions? Will they try to cover it up? It is human nature that we try to protect ourselves, our loved ones and our livelihood.”

Mansotte adds, “In my own case, I was 100% certain that I was dealing with fraud. Yet still my brain was telling me otherwise as I thought I would lose my job or be classified as a troublemaker if I was to accuse a well-respected employee of committing a crime for over 12 years.”

He continues, “The ‘shame’ usually occurs when an individual is about to report something that was impacting them personally – whether mentally or physically, such as bullying or sexual harassment. “In this case, not only will the individual have fear, they will also have a sense of shame, and sometimes guilt. They don’t want to go through that horrific ordeal [of reporting the experience], and they know that as soon as they do, everyone will be made aware of it – peers, colleagues, friends and family.”

Mansotte believes this can explain why in some recent high profile cases, such as Harvey Weinstein or Bill Cosby, it took decades for the first victim to come forward.

“Once one person speaks up, everyone else comes out in the hours, days or weeks following the initial disclosure. This is because they have overcome those feelings of fear and shame, and finally feel empowered to speak up as they realise they are not alone,” says Mansotte.

“If you can take away the fear and shame, individuals will be more likely to report their concerns. This can only work effectively if you can put the individual and the organisation on a level playing field to build trust. And that means allowing the informant to remain anonymous, at least in the first instance.”

Trusted conversations are essential

“If organisations are promoting a culture of whistleblowing, they are failing from the get go,” says Mansotte. “Yes, they will get a bunch of disclosures. But nowhere near what they should receive if only they moved away from the scary word which is ‘whistleblowing’.

“If organisations promote a culture of ‘trusted conversations’, and enable anonymity through a secure, two-way communication platform, they will reap the benefit by empowering their people to come forward and engage in trusted conversations. Some of these conversations may well qualify as whistleblowing events by the organisations, but it should not feel that way to the individuals.”

Award winning: Sylvain Mansotte was recently presented with an ANZLF Trans-Tasman Innovation & Growth Award by New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Australia’s Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment, Simon Birmingham.

Can managers and leaders make the process easier by being more approachable? Mansotte is not convinced.

“Let’s be clear, in the vast majority of cases, the well-written ‘open door policy’ and good intentions go out the window as soon as an individual fears the consequences of reporting any suspicion of misconduct or wrongdoing.

“So even though it is a must to ‘walk the talk’ and promote a culture where individuals feel empowered to speak up without fear of retaliation or vilification, it is also a must to provide avenues that are supportive of this culture.”

Mansotte believes this involves offering relevant reporting mechanisms that are secure and anonymous, and which allow for trusted conversations.

Stronger legislation is required

Whistleblowers in Australia now have the benefit of enhanced protection under law. However, Mansotte is not persuaded this will help to remove the fear factor that whistleblowers often face.

“Most whistleblowers don’t know they are whistleblowers until after the fact. And even if they knew about the legislation before coming forward, they would always have the fear that maybe because they work for a company headquartered overseas or because they are part-time, or whatever the case may be, they will never really know if they will be protected under the law.”

That said, Mansotte believes legislation was needed to force organisations to do the right thing and implement the necessary tools and processes to enable more individuals to speak up.

“My concern is that a lot of organisations believe the problem lies elsewhere. So they prefer to tick the compliance box by putting in place poor reporting mechanisms and policies and procedures that only their legal counsel can read.

“Organisations can no longer afford to just tick that compliance box. There is a long period ahead of us to educate corporate Australia on the benefits of listening to its best asset – its people. By enabling anonymous, trusted conversations, organisations will not only comply with the law but also, most importantly, they will be able to address potential issues before they become a threat and damage their reputation, brand and financials. In addition, organisations will improve the engagement, retention and overall wellbeing of their employees.”

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