09/05/2011

By Ellen Davnall, Business Executive, Fresh Business Thinking

A recent debate hosted by the Frontline Club and the New Statesman came out heavily in favour of the motion that whistleblowers make the world a safer place. This was hardly surprising – the arrival of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange to speak for the proposition was greeted with whoops and cheers from the audience – but what I found striking was the way in which the opposition panel shifted the focus of the debate from the motion in hand, to examine instead on the ethics and motivations behind whistleblowing.

And here I think are lessons for all businesses. You may not work for a global superpower, but private companies are equally at risk of leaks into the public domain. The internet has made it easier than ever for classified information to be spread to a global audience. This means that an awareness of your company’s vulnerability, and the steps you can take to strengthen it are of increasing importance.

Assange himself admitted that, although in his view whistleblowers make the world a safer place, it ‘doesn’t mean that everything in government should be exposed’. Which raised the obvious question from opposition speaker Douglas Murray, a political author and commentator: Who does decide what information should be exposed? Assange’s answer, that the public decide, by voting with their wallets to keep Wikileaks open as a channel for whistleblowers, only covers part of the issue in hand.

Ultimately, it’s the whistleblowers themselves who decide what gets leaked, and to understand that choice, and prevent them making it in your own organisation, it’s essential to understand why someone would blow the whistle on your business in the first place.

Bob Ayers, formerly of the US Department of Defence, and speaking for the opposition in the debate, identified whistleblowers’ motives as personal – greedy for financial reward, ego-tripping on their own power, or acting from allegiance to an ideology. For Ayers, whistleblowers are merely oath-breakers; people who renege on a verbal or written promise to maintain the confidentiality of the information to which they had access. In his view, they are no different to the “snitches” and “rats” of international and corporate espionage, and he specifically cited Kim Philby, who passed UK government secrets to the USSR during the cold war.

What Ayers failed to appreciate, however, is that there is a big difference between espionage – the passing of secrets from one private organisation to another – and whistleblowing – which puts information into the public domain. Ayers was right in stating that leaks are made for personal reasons. What he failed to recognise was that beyond ideology lies conscience or principles.

And it is this moral or ethical element that makes whistleblowers such a risk to businesses and governments alike. A spy might pass on secrets for payment, or – like Kim Philby – out of political allegiance, but a whistleblower acts when their guilty conscience over the secrets they possess outweighs the guilt they will feel as an oath-breaking “snitch”.

It isn’t an easy choice to make. Wikileaks may have turned Assange into a modern-day hero of free speech, but many times in the debate, the personal cost of blowing the whistle was highlighted: loss of employment, legal challenges, and in some cases even imprisonment. But if the personal cost of not speaking out becomes greater than the fear of the consequences, then it is too late for an organisation to change anything. The whistle will be blown.

So what can you do to stop this happening at your own company – though goodness knows I hope you don’t have any closeted skeletons on the Wikileaks scale?

The first lines of defence are obvious – only recruit trustworthy people, and perform thorough background checks if they are going to have access to extremely sensitive data. Make sure they understand the non-disclosure/confidentiality clauses of their contract when they sign it.

Secondly, only circulate sensitive information when you have to, and to people who need to see it. One of the major embarrassments for the US Government over Wikileaks was how many people had access to the classified files – Private Bradley Manning, the alleged source of the leaks, was hardly a senior administration official.

More importantly, perhaps, make sure you pay those with access enough to ensure their loyalty – an act of corporate espionage is far less likely to occur if your employees have too much to lose by making the leak, or your competitors can’t afford to buy them out.

Ultimately, however, you cannot easily buy out a guilty conscience. Unlike espionage, whistleblowing on the scale of Wikileaks or al-Jazeera’s Palestine Papers, is not motivated by money or ego, but by either ethical principle or an absolute belief in the ideal of freedom of information. Such motives are inviolable - in fact it’s likely that the employee’s personal integrity was what motivated you to employ them and trust them with the information in the first place.

In the face of these motives, and the ease with which they can be fulfilled via the internet, today the best options for a business wanting to prevent whistleblowing are twofold. The first is exemplified in Google’s motto: Don’t be evil. The second springs from a point made by proposition speaker Mehdi Hasan, political editor for the New Statesman – that there would be no need for whistleblowers if organisations didn’t lie in the first place. In the long term, it’s far less damaging to be transparently honest, than to have an attempted cover-up embarrassingly exposed.

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