Are whistleblowers protected?
“Whistleblower” is the word generally used to describe someone who exposes wrongdoing within an organisation, such as an illegal activity or corruption. But it takes courage to point the finger, especially if it’s at your boss or an authority figure.
Many of us saw the recent media coverage about a woman who blew the whistle on her former boss, a then NSW government minister, for child sex offences. Gillian Sneddon helped the police gather a case against him, but in the process, claims to have undergone bullying and harassment before being “made redundant”. Last week she was awarded over $400,000 for her workplace treatment, which had caused her to suffer a psychiatric injury.
A sort-of victory. He got put away for a least nine years and she got damages for the way she was treated. But she was bullied and harassed. It’s understandable why many would choose to stay quiet rather than risk their job security and well-being.
So how does the law protect whistleblowers?
It depends. If you work in the public sector then the NSW Protected Disclosures Act offers some protection. The Act makes it a criminal offence for a person to cause someone to suffer, either professionally or personally, because they’ve informed on someone within the organisation regarding something they believe is seriously wrong (eg corruption or serious misuse of public money).
Under the NSW Ombudsman guidelines, whistleblowers must be treated with respect and complaints handled confidentially (or at least discreetly). Any allegations about a person being punished for speaking out should be handled quickly and fairly. (Not the case for Sneddon).
Whistleblowers in the private sector have less legal protection, although sections of the Fair Work Act and the Corporations Act offer some. For example, it’s an unlawful termination if you’re sacked for making a complaint against an employer. And the Corporations Act prohibits victimising or threatening a person for blowing the whistle on someone within a company whose actions have gone against corporations legislation. The culprit is liable to compensate the victim for any damage suffered.
Under Occupational Health and Safety laws employers have a duty of care to ensure the safety and welfare of their employees.
Of course, as an employee your behaviour has to be reasonable. You can’t go making false and carefree accusations, and you’re expected to follow your organisation’s complaints procedures. If you’re scared to complain internally, there are other bodies you can go to (eg. the NSW Ombudsman – public sector). Having evidence to back up what you say will ultimately give you the best protection.
Many would argue that laws aside, whistleblowing carries risk. But if it exposes serious problems within an organisation, perhaps the risk is worth it.
For more information please see Misfeasance in public office and the robodebt debacle.