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Whistleblowing on the rise, growing number of complaints - Ombudsman

Monday 1 July 2024, 5:00AM

By Office of the Ombudsman

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Whistleblowing is on the rise with a growing number of people going to the Ombudsman to report serious wrongdoing in their workplace and seeking advice about making protected disclosures.

In 2022/2023 the Chief Ombudsman received 128 protected disclosures and enquiries, which was an 80% increase from the previous year (with 71 received in 2021/22).

So far this year, 2023/2024, the Ombudsman has received 203 protected disclosures and enquiries - a further 58% increase on the year before.

This week marks World Whistleblower Day and Chief Ombudsman Peter Boshier says he is very heartened to know that people seem to feel more comfortable about reporting issues.

"This is a critical mechanism in ensuring that wrongdoing is exposed. I applaud all those people who have come forward and reported wrongdoing or potential wrongdoing in their work places," he says.

"Unethical and unlawful behaviour in the workplace is never acceptable. The people who have the courage to speak out are crucial to making integrity and accountability stronger within their organisations."

Mr Boshier says a number of common themes relating to serious wrongdoing are emerging in complaints to him including financial mismanagement, unsafe work practices, sexual harassment and a lack of organisational response to sexual harassment.

"I am very concerned by the growing number of people reporting what they describe as cases of sexual harassment and who say they are alarmed that their complaints have not been taken seriously by their employer.

"That is totally unacceptable. I commend the bravery of people who are lifting the lid on wrongdoing that would otherwise stay hidden. This can bring about lasting change."

Mr Boshier says the enactment of new whistleblower legislation in 2022 gave people the ability to raise matters directly with him and other appropriate authorities on a range of subjects without first having to complain within their organisation.

"This could be one reason I’ve seen a notable increase in protected disclosures. There may also be a growing intolerance in society of unacceptable behaviour and practices."

Mr Boshier says a recent survey he commissioned shows that 25 percent of people said they had witnessed serious wrongdoing at work. However, less than half (41%) who had witnessed serious wrongdoing made a protected disclosure.

Eighty-one percent of those surveyed said if they did witness serious wrongdoing, they would report it to their employer, and 54 percent said they would report it to an appropriate authority. However, only 44 percent thought their job would be safe if they did so. The survey also found that people felt safer if there was a guarantee of anonymity and confidentiality.

"This demonstrates how important it is for workplaces to have effective processes to encourage employees to speak out, protect them from retaliation, and keep their identities confidential.

"The Ombudsman plays a very important role in encouraging agencies to make sure their whistleblowing policies are robust. My staff also, very importantly, provide people with confidential advice about reporting serious wrongdoing.

"I urge organisations to make sure that they do everything they can to support staff to speak up about matters that are unethical or unlawful. This is critical to maintaining New Zealand’s reputation as a free and transparent society and the only way that enduring change can be made."

The Ombudsman’s guide on making a protected disclosure can be found here:

https://www.ombudsman.parliament.nz/resources/making-protected-disclosure-guide-blowing-whistle

Please reach out to the Ombudsman if you would like make a protected disclosure, or if you would like impartial, confidential advice from a specialist team about:

Who can make a protected disclosure
What constitutes serious wrongdoing
What protections are available if you report serious wrongdoing
Who you may disclose your concerns about serious wrongdoing to
What to do if you are unhappy with your organisation’s response to a report of serious wrongdoing.