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Debate: Protecting whistleblowers must not be a matter of letting the wolf guard the sheep

At the end of December, a new law banning the punishment of whistleblowers was introduced in Sweden. Several prominent researchers, including House of Innovation's Associate Professor Anna Essén, are figuring out what private and public organizations need to consider when implementing the law.

(Original content in Swedish. AI generated translation below.) 

Dissent and diversity of opinion are high currencies in today's organizations. In any case, if one is to believe recruitment advertisements, innovation strategies and value-based documents. On paper, the ceiling is high and critical voices are welcomed.

In our research (Whistleblowing: driving forces and consequences), however, we see that the ceiling for criticism is low, in public as well as private activities. Anyone who points out problems is often left alone. Integrity, a sense of responsibility and the ability to withstand peer pressure are rare.

In the Macchiarini case, where the star surgeon at Karolinska Hospital made serious mistakes, those who sounded the alarm paid a high price, both professionally and privately. Research funding dwindled, as did invitations to social gatherings. Not only that: direct threats of dismissal were interspersed with disguised warnings.

The Macchiarini case illustrates a pattern. Anyone who points out problems in organizations suffers in the form of reduced freedom of action, poorer development opportunities and social exclusion. It takes place with authorities, the police, care providers, and schools, but also among companies in tech and finance. In our review of public and private organizations, we see how people who have been blown away by the whistle are relocated and sometimes downgraded, despite well-founded warnings about misconduct. People who ask critical questions and point to problems are generally seen as "difficult".

We see that retaliation is clear on several levels. Punishments coincide with talk of loyalty, brand thinking and values. There is, we believe, a fixation on positive spirit and trust. Where it is socially and career-wise costly to be openly critical, it will soon be adaptability and caution that dominate. This is the case for large parts of working life.

It is possible that the light wind that previously hit the whistleblowers is about to subside. In Sweden, the EU Whistleblower Directive is now being implemented. The new law came into force on December 17 and aims to increase the protection of whistleblowers in organizations with more than 50 employees. This is welcome, but the question is whether the protection offered by the law is sufficient.

Under the new law, employers may not retaliate against whistleblowers. This means that dismissal, deprivation of information, transfer, and salary reduction are prohibited. If this happens, the employer must pay damages. If a whistleblower subsequently has problems that can be linked to his actions, the burden of proof lies with the employer to show that harassment has not taken place.

From research, however, we know that it is not only formal retaliation that is common. Informal, oppressive tactics are also common. These are expressed in the form of "confidence talks" and "awareness-raising talks". We also see examples of "medicalization": instead of looking at any irregularities, the focus is shifted to the whistleblower's health. Another recurring variant is to moralize over the whistleblower and accuse the employee of disloyalty. At a government agency that we examined, retaliation has included just this, which has the consequence that the employees do not feel further confidence that the said change in the law will give the whistleblower support. If no one whistles, the tightening of the law will be ineffective.

Employers can also check the whistleblower's compliance in various areas in detail and find errors committed by the whistleblower. It becomes more important to "fix" formal errors, than the misconduct that the whistleblower has tried to draw attention to. Of course, these penalties are difficult to prove legally in individual cases, but it underlines the importance of not only paying attention to formal sanctions against those who point to shortcomings.

The systems and processes now being put in place to deal with whistleblowers should be particularly vigilant on the informal sanctions. Working with organizational cultures that really tolerate critical thinking and problem solving is central.

The lack of support for whistleblowers in organizations is striking. Today's way of dealing with different variants of whistleblowers makes it unattractive to report concerns about malpractice. It is more profitable to be happy and positive, than critical. However, organizations that reward compliant employees play high. A culture of constructive business criticism takes a long time to build up, but is demolished in a couple of short-term moves where the messenger is made the culprit.

The new directive is a step in the right direction, but requires real work to encourage and protect those who dare to speak out. It is bad if employers's future attempts to protect whistleblowers become a matter of letting the wolf guard the sheep.

Anna Essén, Associate Professor, Stockholm School of Economics

Mats Alvesson, Professor, Lund University

David Ebbevi, Ph D, Karolinska Institutet

Anna Stevenson, Ph D, Lund University

Anna-Karin Wyndhamn, Ph D, University of Gothenburg

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