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Making Whistleblower Protection Believable

12 November 2023

By Katja Hemmerich

This week, the UN General Assembly’s Fifth Committee was scheduled to start its consideration of the reports related to the UN’s internal administrative justice system. This consists of a formal system, which includes the UN Dispute Tribunal, as well as informal conflict resolution mechanisms, such as the Office of the Ombudsman and Mediation Services (UNOMS). Although the session has just been postponed until Tuesday, 21 November, we are spotlighting it this week.

A grey metal scale with a red whistle in the shape of a face on one side.

Both the report of the Ombudsman, and the report of the Internal Justice Council (IJC), which oversees the system, have raised issues around fear of, and protection from, retaliation by staff and non-staff reporting misconduct during investigations and formal or informal resolution efforts.

Our spotlight therefore uses new research to explore what factors can contribute to enhancing perceived organizational protection for whistleblowers in an international context such as the United Nations. We provide concrete recommendations on how best to invest limited training resources, and suggest some questions that those participating in the discussion on the administration of justice on 21 November might want to consider.

Perception of the UN's ability to protect whistleblowers

As a key player in the UN’s informal justice system the Office of the Ombudsman regularly reports to the Fifth Committee and highlights systemic concerns based on their cases and observations. In this year’s report, UNOMS has flagged that they have observed a lack of protection measures being used which have resulted in those alleging wronging to continue working with the person against whom they filed a complaint. The Ombudsman has also indicated that many of the staff who seek advice from their office have highlighted that they fear retaliation for reporting misconduct or inappropriate behaviours.

The Office was made aware of cases where complainants took extended periods of sick leave because they had to continue working with the subject of their complaints, with no interim measures in place to protect them during the formal process as provided for in the relevant policy (ST/SGB/2019/8).” - A/78/170, para. 81.

The Ethics Office apparently has raised similar concerns about fear of retaliation by those reporting misconduct in its discussions with the Internal Justice Council, which the IJC has emphasized in its report to the Fifth Committee. This is the not the first time that the IJC has raised this concern, having flagged it in its 2019 report to the Fifth Committee (A/74/169). UN Secretariat staff themselves have consistently indicated in staff engagement surveys that they do not believe that whistleblowers will be sufficiently protected from retaliation. Consequently, the IJC has indicated to the Fifth Committee that it will continue “to examine fear of and protection against retaliation for staff bringing cases and those testifying before the Tribunals and for reporting misconduct” as part of its programme of work for 2024.

But what concretely can convince staff and stakeholders such as the Internal Justice Council that there is an appropriate system for protecting those who report misconduct from retaliation?

New research highlights what drives perceptions of protection

Although many organizations have instituted different types of ethics and whistleblower protection initiatives,

"there is little empirical research that broadens our understanding of which organizational strategies are effective in building confidence among public employees about organizational protection for whistleblowers" - R. Chordiya, "Organizational protection for whistleblowers: a cross-national study", 2020

Professor Rashmi Chordiya from the Institute of Public Service at Seattle University has recently published a study which fills that gap. Her study compares what drives perceptions of whistleblower protections amongst public employees in China, Malaysia, Taiwan and the United States. The hypothesis of Professor Chordiya and her team of researchers is that employees will have positive perceptions of an organization’s ability to protect whistleblowers if the following exists:

  1. Employees are aware of the legal protections;

  2. Leaders models ethical behaviors by setting clear ethical standards and using rewards and punishments to see that they are followed and frequently communicating with their followers about ethics;

  3. Ethics management practices exist, such as mandatory ethics training and the existence of a code of ethics; and

  4. The organization has an ethical climate, which results in informational and social cues push employees to resolve problems using rules or based on considerations of the well-being of others (as opposed to egoistic climates which are mainly concerned with self-interest).

The researchers surveyed lower level managers, supervisors and senior employees in public sector organizations in all four countries to learn whether the managers thought these criteria existed in their organization and whether they considered that their organization protected whistleblowers.

In all four countries, awareness of legal protections, ethical leadership behaviors and an ethical climate correlated with positive perceptions that whistleblowers would be appropriately protected by their organizations. The results were quite different, however, for mandatory ethics training and codes of conduct.

Only in the United States was the existence of mandatory ethics training linked to a positive perception of whistleblower protection. In none of the four countries did the existence of a code of conduct correlate with positive perceptions of whistleblower protections. In Taiwan, it was actually linked to a negative perception of protection against retaliation.

The study therefore provides useful insights for organizations like the United Nations that have whistleblower protection measures, but have not been able to convince their staff and stakeholders that these really provide protection. Training is an intervention often used in this context, but this new study highlights that limited training budgets are best invested in training senior leadership on ethical leadership techniques and modeling behaviors for their staff. Mandatory training for all staff has its uses, but will not convince staff that the organization will protect them from retaliation. Creating engaging awareness-raising campaigns and learning events for staff and managers about what protection measures exist and how they can be initiated, as the UN Ethics Office has started in 2023, can provide a much better return on investment.

Questions to consider

For those involved in, or awaiting the outcome of the Fifth Committee discussions on the administration of justice in the UN, we suggest the following questions to consider:

  1. Are levels of awareness about protection from retaliation amongst staff being measured? What is the current level of awareness?

  2. How many staff and non-staff employees have participated in awareness-raising events about protection from retaliation?

  3. How does UN leadership training cover ethical leadership behaviors? What tools are provided to support leaders in modeling ethical leadership and discussing ethical issues with their teams?

  4. How are leaders made aware of measures to protect staff from retaliation and who has the delegated authority to initiate temporary or permanent measures?


Key Meeting of UN Governance Mechanisms this week

  • The WFP Executive Board holds its second regular session of 2023 from 13-16 November. The session is focused primarily on management issues, incl. WFP's Management Plan (unique in the UN system) and country programme evaluations.

  • UNESCO's General Conference continues this week. In addition to substantive issues, the General Conference will consider and approve the budget for 2024-2025 and is also expected to approve UNESCO's new Human Resources Strategy. Last week's spotlight outlined what member states priorities are for the Strategy and their impact on the Strategy's ability to improve human resources management at UNESCO.

  • UNICEF's Executive Board allows member states to comment on the draft Country Programme Documents that the Board will consider at its first regular session of 2024 (6-9 February 2024). The commenting period is from 14 November to 4 December 2023.

  • The Fifth Committee continues consideration of the 2024 proposed programme and budget, and consideration of the various construction projects this week. Consequently, the consideration of the reports of the Administration of Justice system of the United Nations, which was scheduled for Friday has been postponed until 21 November.


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