Anonymous whistleblowing has a bad reputation. In political circles, it is often linked to snitching. Such was the outcry after a tax office in southern Germany allowed anonymous reporting on tax evasion, that people started talking about ‘tax Stasi’, making a reference to the secret police in former eastern Germany that used to spy on citizens through a network of informants.
Whistleblowing, which is what reporting channels such as the one in the tax office aimed to encourage, is far from that. People who blow the whistle speak up in the public interest, often against those more powerful than themselves, to put an end to wrongdoing. They do so, courageously, and at great personal cost to themselves.
The case of the Wirecard whistleblower
Take the example of Pav Gill, who revealed the Wirecard fraud scandal in 2019 that ultimately led to the insolvency of the German financial company. Gill was the senior legal counsel at the Asia-Pacific branch of Wirecard when he discovered that the company was allegedly engaging in fraudulent accounting to inflate its profits. He first reported his suspicions internally but only received backlash – first being relieved of his duties and then forced out of the company. He eventually turned to an investigative journalist with his findings.
When whistleblowers like Gill report wrongdoing in their own organisations or to other relevant people like investigative journalists, law enforcement or regulatory authorities, misconduct can be investigated and mechanisms that allowed for it to happen can be corrected. In fact, an effective internal whistleblowing system within a company can be a powerful risk management and prevention tools which helps protect organisations from the effects of misconduct – including legal liability, lasting reputational harm and serious financial losses.
However, the kind of retaliation Gill faced within his organisation is hardly encouraging to people who may want to speak up. According to the latest Eurobarometer on corruption, more than eight in ten European Union (EU) citizens did not report corruption when they experienced or witnessed it. Our 2021 Global Corruption Barometer – European Union revealed that only 47 per cent of EU citizens feel that they can safely report corruption, with 45 per cent fearing reprisal for doing so.
Anonymous reporting systems encourage whistleblowing
To support courageous whistleblowers, public and private organisations as well as authorities need reporting systems that are as comprehensive as possible and allow for anonymous reporting. If whistleblowers do not have to disclose their identity, their fear of reprisals may be reduced, and they may be encouraged to come forward with information more often. This way, they can trigger investigations into wrongdoing without directly jeopardising their professional careers. Even if the investigation following up on their tip does not ultimately lead to confirmation of misconduct, the structured review of facts will provide for clearer rules of conduct and improved compliance.
Pav Gill was not anonymous when he blew the whistle internally at Wirecard. After the collapse of the company, he also revealed himself as the whistleblower who worked with investigative journalists who reported on the scandal. Despite his courage, he couldn’t find a job again in his country, Singapore, and had to move for employment. Whistleblowers often face such setbacks after exposing powerful people or organisations.
The option of reporting anonymously can greatly reduce personal risks for those speaking up. However, the EU Directive on the protection of whistleblowers that went into effect in December 2021 did not make this mandatory. It allows member states to choose whether to require organisations and authorities to accept and follow-up on making anonymous reports or not. France and Portugal have decided to accept anonymous reports, while Germany has chosen not to, at least, according to the latest version of the draft law to transpose the EU Directive to national legislation. One of the main oppositions seems to be preventing reporting systems from being overwhelmed by false or trivial reports. If the experience of other countries and organisations who already have anonymous reporting systems in place is considered, these concerns are largely unfounded. False or trivial reports are rare and can easily be filtered out with an effective system.
According to the 2021 Global Corruption Barometer – EU, 64 per cent of people think that they can make a difference in the fight against corruption. Allowing for anonymous reporting, supported by an effective system, can support their efforts.
It’s also important to acknowledge that anonymity is not absolute protection, and it might be difficult to maintain, for example, when the information reported is only known by a few people. In addition to being able to report anonymously, whistleblowers must be protected against unfair treatment and be provided with legal and financial support to obtain full reparation for any personal and professional costs.