A fair and just society is characterised by mechanisms to report truth and challenge powerful interests, without fear or favour.
Many large corporations offer an anonymous tip-off facility to report corruption, to this end. Usually run by big law and accounting firms, these programmes are designed to protect “whistle-blowers” and improve corporate ethics.
This method has been effective in helping the police fight crime because baseless complaints can be filtered out by professional investigators before anyone connected with those against whom the complaint is being laid gets to know about it.
But in organisations, tip-offs are reported to the board or ethics committee, which is likely to plant doubt in the minds of the accused’s colleagues and superiors.
“Whistle-blowers” are presumed to be innocent, observers or a victims holding the moral high ground. They can abuse power, as they are not required to prove the charges or to present evidence, to disprove possible vindictiveness, to show real insight into the circumstances or system in question or appreciate the actual agenda of presumed wrong-doers.
Of course, corporate executives can treat anonymous complaints according to context – and the wise ones do. But not all organisational leaders can cope with the ambivalence and self-doubt that usually precedes making such a judgement call; particularly when power, reputation or wealth is at risk.
Anonymous tip-offs obviate the anxiety that usually precedes making an accusation and voicing a negative, unpopular or controversial opinion. Yet, especially when controversy is involved, a good conversation allows each person’s views to be tested, calibrated and validated, helps in dealing with complexity and understanding of the issues, extracts the truth from controversy and confusion as the participants confront inconsistencies in each other’s arguments; thereby signalling to all parties that resolution is attainable.
This is particularly necessary in large corporations, where agendas are complex and fraught with dilemmas. Conversational skill is essential in helping a business to deal with difference; in other words to embrace a culture where uncomfortable facts are presented and controversial opinions voiced, regardless of one’s power position.
Instead, the use of electronic rather than real communication is growing in anonymous tip-off lines. As a result, meaning is lost and people lash out with impunity – to distort and confuse principles and pretend to be what they are not.
Since the big auditing firms all peddle whistle-blowing services, this begs the question why the enterprise resource planning systems and the fancy governance codes they also sell and install do not pick up impropriety; or clarify fact, meaning and context and resolve the misunderstanding that plague organisations and result in false anonymous accusations.
The reason is, of course, that these are profitable products which ignore the specific circumstances, subjectivity and vagaries of character and culture, by which people interpret reality to make decisions.
These systems stifle creativity and are treated as codes to be cracked by the criminals they are meant to thwart and the accomplished lawyers and accountants who advise them.
An ombudsman’s office is more appropriate than an anonymous tip-off line, as the ombudsman can ensure absolute confidentiality and safety until a situation has been compassionately and fairly judged.
However, the big professional services firms would not be able to run these offices as profitably as the anonymous tip-off lines. Linear, forensic investigators can be recruited, trained and rules created for them, more easily than what it takes to develop and apply the wise judgement of an ombudsman.
The same applies to a competent facilitator who knows the truth is seldom plain and never simple, who is experienced in dealing with working relationships and is able to manage the underlying conflict implicit in most situations that result in anonymous tip-offs or “whistle-blowing”. Only the firms that peddle “whistle-blowing” systems benefit from ignoring this.
Jonathan Yudelowitz is a joint managing director of YSA (Pty) Limited and a co-author of Smart Leadership.