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Would you dare to blow the whistle?

In recent decades whistleblowing has shed itself of its negative connotations and emerged as an essential part of a healthy business culture – so why are some people still reluctant to do it?

Author: Rhiannon Curry

02 June 2020

Image, Mark McQuade

Image, Mark McQuade

Picture the scene: you witness something at work that makes you feel uneasy, perhaps inappropriate behaviour or financial discrepancies. Upon reflection you realise that what you saw was criminal or a serious breach of professional standards. Who do you tell?

One of an RICS professional's core responsibilities is to act in the public's interest, which includes an obligation to report any fellow professional who isn't doing so. But whistleblowing has got something of a bad name; it can be perceived as difficult and risky, with potentially serious professional implications – possibly even dismissal from your job, or a criminal conviction.

"The profession wants to protect its reputation – they take pride in the industry" Emma Dowd RICS

However, whistleblowing is also part of a healthy business culture (see box right): it's an effective way to uphold and enforce a professional ethos, it shows employees that they are valued, and it gives access to otherwise difficult to reach information, which in turn, reduces a range of risks. So why is there still a stigma around the practice?

Some countries, including Canada, South Korea, the US and South Africa, have introduced legislation to compensate public sector whistleblowers who suffer adverse effects as a consequence of speaking up. In Canada, for example, the Ontario Securities Commission offers whistleblowers up to C$5m (£2.9m) for a tip that leads to enforcement action. And a similar system exists in Australia. To encourage people to come forward with their concerns, and protect them when they do, the Corporations Act 2001 gives certain legal rights and protections to whistleblowers. They also have the right to seek compensation for reprisals, and courts are required to preserve and protect a whistleblower's identity, unless it is in the interest of justice to do otherwise.

Rules of conduct

While employment legislation varies across the world, RICS has rules of conduct to which members must adhere that includes five ethical standards: act with integrity; always provide a high standard of service; act in a way that promotes trust in the profession; treat others with respect; and take responsibility.

Although there are procedures in place that allow any breach of these standards to be brought to RICS' attention by whistleblowing, it's clear that many people still feel nervous about stepping forward; a point reinforced by the fact that nearly all the RICS professionals who agreed to take part in this featre would only do so on the condition of anonymity.

One RICS' member in China, Mr H, who has worked in valuation in Beijing for more thean 12 years, says I think each whistleblower will have to imagine what future consequences will be borne by themselves or their family, and balance that against how serious the problem is. Can the porblem be solved? This is human nature.

Mr H adds that while he believes that RICS profesionals in China take their responsibilities to act in the public interest seriously, it isn't always east to do so: "Some problems can slightly affect the interests of others, but serioulsy affect yourself", he says, citing an example where someone may have to report their line manager to a higher boss, potentially causing tension at work, or make a disclosure about an important or valuable client.

Censorship in China sometimes makes the problem worse. "When this issue is related to the government, the consequences can be worse," explains Mr H. "Somehow, public interest comes below national interest."

Fear of reprisals

Other professionals agreed that there were fears around repisals and a lack of confidentiality for those who speak out, and that turning a blind eye to the behaviour often seems easier.

An Indonesian RICS profesional, Mr M, who has worked in quantity surveying in Indonesia for more than 10 years, says: "I have been in a situation where maintaining the ethical code would take longer and cost the same as exposing the main or sub-contractors who were engaging in this behaviour. I feel that local companies maintain the status quo [rather than reporting bad behaviour], and it has actually become part of the process."

"For many professionals, their business relationship is too import to risk by creating friction"

However, there was more positivity from members in India. Ms P, who has worked in different corporate offices specialising in legal and compliance for more than 15 years, says: "I think things are changing in India. People are proactively whistleblowing. We can see this in relation to companies listed on the stock exchange, many of whom have received complaints. And time and again, courts are upholding the need to protect the whistleblower."

But some difficulties still remain. Although whistleblowers in India are technically protected under the Whistleblower Protection Act 2011, the Act has still not yet come into force, because amendments pertaining to safeguards against certain disclosures relevant to national security could not be incorporated.

"In this highly competitive market, which has limited business opportunities, ethical compliance is often considered secondary to business gains. This is further marred by economic turmoil, like India is facing at present," says Mr A, who has worked in real estate research and consultancy for more than 12 years.

"For many professionals, their business relationship is too important to risk by causing friction within their professional networks," Mr A adds. "Consequently, they avoid facing any retaliation and personal confrontation."

Say what you see

Mindful of these potential challenges, RICS has released new guidance on making reports called Speaking Up (see Whistleblowers toolkit).

Emma Dowd, a regulatory technical specialist at RICS who co-authored the guidance, says it was written in response to a lack of clarity about members' rights and responsibilities.

"CPD events organised by the regulation department, showed us that people were really interested in cases we had worked on," explains Dowd. "But we found that people either didn't realise they had an obligation to report, or they didn't necessarily come forward. This new guidance is intended to remind professionals of their obligations, and to have something clearly visible on our website that we could point people towards."

Generally, she finds that professionals are keen to uphold the high standards across the sector and see the real value in professional qualification to support their business. "The profession wants to protect its reputation – they take pride in the industry," Dowd says.

Francesca Richards, a lead investigator for RICS in the UK, explains that the current process works well although it can sometimes have challenges when a whistleblower wants to remain anonymous. Richards has recently worked on two cases where this was a real issue: one where someone reported inappropriate behaviour, and another where someone highlighted court judgements against an RICS professional. In some instances, this can have a real impact on RICS' ability to take investigations forward.

But, Richards says, many of the complaints that she receives are about poor service which isn't something the investigations team deals with. "If we are satisfied it meets the threshold, it goes to an investigator. They review the information and see if more is needed, usually from the person or member who has made the complaint, although we do also seek evidence from third parties.

"Once we have the information and we are satisfied that there has been a breach of conduct rules, we will write to the member concerned with our findings." This letter will address the claims and give the member a chance to respond to the allegations.

"Once we have a response, it may be then that it is clear that the allegations are unfounded, or it shows that we need to get more information, or to refine the allegations we are looking into," she explains. "After that, we can decide whether the allegation meets the threshhold for disciplinary action."

For those who do make a disclosure, LionHeart, an independent charity for RICS professionals and their families, can help.

Although only one way in which RICS captures information that can lead to regulation action, whistleblowing remains an important way to raise concerns in order to confront, challenge and deal with bad or illegal practices.

"People say, 'We're part of this group that upholds high standards, that provides a good service to clients, and we don't want that to be spoilt by the actions of a few'," Dowd explains. "That's a great motivator to speak out."

Go to RICS website for further advice about speaking up and the rules of conduct for RICS professionals 

ON THE FLIGHT PATH TO RIGHTEOUSNESS What the aviation industry can teach us about transparency and accountability

In his book Black Box Thinking, Matthew Syed claims that we cannot grow unless we embrace the lessons that arise when we fail, and it is only then that success occurs. He points to the aviation industry as a model of this attitude: the sector has created an astonishingly good safety record because, he says, mistakes are learned from rather than concealed – promoting a culture which encourages whistleblowing.

"When people don't interrogate errors, they sometimes don't even know they have made one even if they suspect they may have he writes."

He cites the case of United Airlines Flight 173, which crashed in Portland, Oregon, in 1978. Following a problem deploying the landing gear, the plane was put into a holding pattern for approximately an hour. During this time a flight engineer tried to warn the captain that the plane was dangerously low on fuel, but the captain was focused on the issue with the landing gear. The plane subsequently crashed, killing 10 people, and what Syed is keen to point out is that there was a statutory immediate investigation in the weeks and months that followed.

Historical and real-time data was used, including the plane's black-box data, enabling comparison with previous incidents. Everyone involved cooperated fully, as the immediate assumption was there must have been a system problem. Any evidence given to the independent inquiry was inadmissible in court.

Within weeks of the report being completed, its findings were disseminated throughout the entire aviation industry, with recommendations for change to protect air crews and passengers in the future, with checklists, tools and training simulations.

Since these changes have been implemented, the spate of crashes that were so typical of the 1970s have declined significantly.

"A 'closed loop' is where failure doesn't lead to progress because information on errors and weaknesses is misinterpreted or ignored; an 'open loop' does lead to progress because the feedback is rationally acted upon." Syed writes.

Illustrations by Mike McQuade

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