What you need to know about the new whistleblowing laws

Employment Law Column - 31 October 2017

Whistleblowing might have just become safer. What could the proposed protections for workplace informants mean for your business?

Do you hear the faint whistling in the distance? It’s only going to get louder. In a previous article for HRM, we considered the limited protections available to workers under Australia’s current whistleblowing laws. By “workplace whistleblowers”, we mean individuals in the workplace who, for one reason or another, report workplace fraud, misconduct or corruption happening in their organisation.

In this article, we take a look at the recommendations made in a recent high profile parliamentary inquiry which give insight into the new whistleblowing laws set to sweep across Australia.

On hearing the words “parliamentary inquiry”, you might be tempted to tune out. However, the proposed changes contain some timely points that organisations both big and small should prepare for.

What’s the big deal?

Businesses know the reputational and financial damage that can occur if whistleblowers take their concerns to external sources, especially the media. Look no further than whistleblower allegations of systemic wage fraud in several 7-Eleven outlets, or the recent exposé of some institutions’ financial planning practices. Most businesses acknowledge that legitimate whistleblowing is an important part of keeping an organisation healthy when it comes to being held accountable for their actions.

However, until recently there have been limited external legal avenues available for employees who blow the whistle in Australia.

What do the recommendations say?

Not only do the Parliamentary Joint Committee’s proposed recommendations introduce a new set of uniform laws to cover private sector organisations, they also call for the establishment of a Whistleblower Protection Authority. The authority will have the power to assess whistleblowing allegations, conduct criminal and non-criminal investigations in the workplace, and refer cases to the Australian Federal Police and other prosecutorial bodies.

The committee’s endorsement of a new “bounty” system that rewards whistleblowers a percentage of any penalty imposed against employers for matters uncovered through workplace investigations or prosecutions, is significant. What remains to be seen is whether the proposed reward system will support internal disclosure mechanisms or will encourage employees to bypass internal systems entirely and report straight to external agencies.

The proposed laws are a call to action to ensure organisations get their internal reporting mechanisms right. Otherwise if the whistleblower feels that they haven’t been listened to, or have been mistreated by their employer, they might choose to escalate their concerns elsewhere.

What can your business do to get ready?

Here are a few tips to help your organisation address internal issues before they are escalated outside the business:

  • Review and strengthen your internal whistleblower arrangements. If you don’t have one already, implement a whistleblower policy in the workplace that outlines the internal procedure an individual should follow if they wish to make a protected disclosure.
  • Foster a strong culture of compliance. A policy is only as good as its practice. Make sure your staff receive training in all things whistleblower-related, and are familiar with the procedure they should follow. For example, you could look at rolling out an online training course to all staff, like this recommended course designed by our friends at Learning Seat.
  • Finally, keep your eyes peeled for the new laws. Only time will tell the extent to which parliament will take on board the committee’s recommendations. What’s clear is that the government is prioritising protection for those who blow the whistle on foul play in the workplace. Any steps your business can take now will not only be a short-term help, they will help ease the burden when changes eventually take effect.

 

This article is part of a regular employment law column series for HRM Online by Workplace Relations & Safety partner Aaron Goonrey and Lawyer Emily Burgess.  It was first published in HRM Online on 31 October 2017. The HRM Online version of this article is available here.

 

 

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