THE MAGAZINE

Eastern Inscrutability: Blowing the Whistle in Asia

By Robert Elliott

Whistleblowing can work in Asia as well as any other part of the world, but there are some obstacles that make getting to the bottom of internal problems more difficult, according to delegates at the recent ASIS International Asia Pacific Security Conference in Singapore.

Whistleblowing occurs when a current or former employee, or a member of an organization, reports misconduct to the powers-that-be with the intent of spurring corrective action. Typical infractions include fraud, safety violations, theft, or corruption. Most common are whistleblowers inside organizations who catch a colleague engaging in illicit activities.

Part of the whistleblowing process is an incident report. In Asia, that can present difficulties. "Incident reporting works all over the world except in Asia - you don't report an incident because you don't want to lose face," says Hans Dahlquist, a senior risk and security advisor for Global Risk & Security Management Pte Ltd. Dahlquist was formerly chief security officer for Swedish telecommunications equipment manufacturing giant Ericsson, which has more than 160 operations worldwide.

Dahlquist says that Asian employees try to resolve problems surreptitiously, rather than report them. "You don't want to tell anyone your group has made a mistake, so you solve it internally, you don't lose face, you don't embarrass your boss," he says.

When someone does reveal errors or wrongdoing, the problem can be very hard to probe because of the desire not to appear incompetent, he says. "When it comes to whistleblowing, it could be very difficult to investigate," says Dahlquist.

The former Ericsson security head says that despite these difficulties, he did get reports of problems and about 50 percent of them were worth investigating. Of those, about one-third led to dismissal or prosecution; one-third to other disciplinary action; and one-third resulted in a change in process. "It's quite a good record - it works," he says. But he notes that fewer reports were received in Asia.

Dahlquist and Abigail Cheadle, the lead director of Forensic for Deloitte & Touche Financial in Singapore, both stress that informants have to be guaranteed anonymity to avoid backlash for their whistleblowing action. "It all comes down to anonymity. If they are anonymous, they will call," says Cheadle.

Deloitte has installed whistleblowing systems for three companies in Singapore. The networks include free phone lines to accept incoming calls from informants; full-time trained staffers; a Web page; and a case-management process. Whistleblowers can get in touch via phone, mail, e-mail, a Web-based service called Tip-Offs Anonymous, fax, or text message.

The expense associated with such whistleblowing infrastructure is another potential drawback. Deloitte charges $15,000 for the initial implementation of its system, plus an average $2,500 per month - or even more depending on your employee level - to keep it running, says Cheadle. Those who call in cannot be used as witnesses in order to protect their identity. "A lot of people don't like the idea of putting in an extensive whistleblower [program] and not being able to identify who could be a witness. That is a problem," says Cheadle.

Most people call in to report wrongdoings "because they are good people," says Cheadle. But there are other motivations. Some offenders will snitch on partners-in-crime to defer attention from their own illicit activities. Others will tattle on a coworker with whom they have broken off an affair or relationship in an act of vengeance. Much less often, malicious intent is behind a call.

The chief reason people do not blow the whistle is because they doubt anything will be done to remedy the problem, the independent nonprofit Project on Government Oversight (POGO) found. Other top reasons include a fear of retaliation at work, the risk involved in reporting such information, or trepidation that one's identity will be revealed.

In Asia, whistleblowing is a recommended, but not obligatory, business practice. More companies are leaning towards the installation of whistleblower lines to enhance their public image and reputation, however, says Cheadle. "They want to be seen as a recommended listed company and be transparent, and show the community they are doing the right thing and make sure their shareholders like them," she says. "But they have to show value for the price."

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