A whistle-blower is a person who exposes and warns about criticisable conditions in companies, organisations or public institutions where they are either employed, or have been employed. It is important that the information is presented to a person who is capable of dealing with the situation. The media has drawn attention to several important whistle-blowing cases, but we dont hear anything about the majority of cases. They are internal affairs and are solved internally.
When Brita Bjørkelo began working with whistle-blowers, she was under the impression that informants had a difficult time afterwards. But that is not true for the majority of whistle-blowers.
- Most say that nothing happened to them afterwards. But at the same time they say that they are not as happy with their job situation, and they feel that they are bullied more than other employees.
We cannot prove that the bullying is a result of the whistle-blowing, but we cannot rule it out either, says Bjørkelo. She presented her doctoral thesis at the Faculty of Psychology last week.
- The most important discovery, is that whistle-blowing is effective, and that the majority of whistle-blowers arent punished in any way, she says.
A health problem
Most of the group that took part in the investigation had informed about specific incidents or people, and not about problems that affected the entire organisation. Bjørkelo has not investigated cases where employees have resigned as a result of whistle-blowing, and doesnt know how many this applies to.
Bjørkelo believes that things turn out alright for most whistle-blowers, but that some whistle-blowers really have problems.
In an in-depth study, she interviewed a person who had blown the whistle on a problem that was widespread in the workplace. This person said that whistle-blowing had worsened the working environment and caused health problems.
- There are examples of whistle-blowers that have been made to do unnecessary jobs, with routine tasks and repetitive duties. We know that the employers reactions can have serious consequences for the health of the whistle-blower, says Bjørkelo.
She thinks that several of these cases can indicate that there are fewer consequences if one warns about specific incidents, than if one warns about widespread organisational problems.
- It seems as though whistle-blowers who warn about matters where top management is not directly involved, manage well. But if they warn about serious problems higher up in the system, then it can become extremely difficult, says Bjørkelo.
Reward for whistle-blowing
Brita Bjørkelos doctoral thesis shows that whistle-blowing is a valuable and effective way for employees to end criticisable working conditions and she thinks that whistle-blowers should be rewarded.
- The group that took part in my investigation, report that whistle-blowing is effective and that they havent been punished in any way by their employers. But they havent been rewarded either. This is a little odd, as whistle-blowing does have an effect and one would think that employers would see the benefit of rewarding whistle-blowers, she says.
The majority say that the problem they warned about was quickly dealt with.
- Many say that they didnt get any feed-back about what happened after they blew the whistle. I think its important to realise that whistle-blowers need feed-back, because it can influence whether or not they continue to give warnings in the future, says Bjørkelo.
Whistle-blowing at UiB
The Working Environment Act was altered in 2006 to protect whistle-blowers from reprisals and sanctions. UiB approved guidelines concerning whistle-blowing in February 2009. At present whistle-blowers are not rewarded by the university.
- Although there is no reward system for whistle-blowers, I would like to refer to the guidelines preface and regulations, which specify that UiB employees shall be able to inform of problematical conditions concerning the university, without fear of reprisal, says senior executive officer Kathrine Thorsen of the Department of Human Resources.
According to the guidelines, whistle-blowers shall receive confirmation that the warning has been received, and they shall also be informed of the outcome.
If employees wish to report criticisable conditions, they should first take the matter up with their superior or another senior member of staff. The matter can perhaps later be reported to the personnel safety officer.
Three different studies
Brita Bjørkelos thesis consists of three empirical studies that have different methods of approach. The first study examines the personal characteristics of the whistle-blowers, the type of warning, and the consequences after the warning, in a national and representative selection of Norwegian employees.
In the second study she investigated the importance of the whistle-blowers personal characteristics, in two large groups of employees.
The third study examined the actual process involved in whistle-blowing and the potential consequences, including those relating to health - based on a single case - using psychological tests, an interview, and written sources from the process.