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World Whistleblowers Day 2024: Whistleblowers’ safety is everyone’s safety

Image: Transparency International

People who speak up to report corruption should never have to fear for their livelihood or personal security. But, all too often, those who blow the whistle on wrongdoing face retaliation from their employers, colleagues or even the authorities. Important information that can help keep us all safe is often buried when this happens.

Whistleblowers have the potential to save lives. But, when whistleblowers suffer, we all suffer with them.

Our Advocacy and Legal Advice Centres (ALACs) are here to help. No one needs to report corruption alone. Across the world, ALACs act to ensure people reporting wrongdoing are kept safe and that their stories help bring justice. We’ll also keep on pushing for legal protection, so that whistleblowers can safely expose and help prevent corruption, ultimately building integrity across our societies.

Find your local ALAC

Businesses, non-profits and public offices should all have processes in place allowing employees to safely and securely raise concerns. Anyone who speaks up to report malpractice should be confident that they will be taken seriously, and their report acted upon. They should have the option to remain anonymous and trust that their identity will be protected. Whether they report internally or speak to the media or the authorities, whistleblowers should be safeguarded against retaliation, including dismissal, unfair treatment or harassment.

Sadly, however, this is not always the case.

Two recent cases underscore the potential pitfalls and highlight the urgent need for strong whistleblower systems and comprehensive whistleblower protection worldwide.

Tragedy strikes again at Boeing

Around the world, people have been alarmed by a series of technical problems affecting Boeing aircrafts.

In January, an Alaska Airlines Boeing 737 Max lost a door at 5000 metres altitude, forcing pilots to make an emergency landing. Later the same month, a Boeing 748-A cargo plane made an emergency landing in Miami, USA. A video posted on social media appears to show part of the plane in flames. In June, a third Boeing cargo plane had to make an emergency landing in Istanbul, Türkiye, after its front landing gear failed to deploy.

The incidents in 2024 follow two fatal crashes of Boeing 737 Max passenger planes in 2018 and 2019, which led to a worldwide grounding of the aircraft. These are the types of events that former Boeing quality manager John Barnett was trying to prevent.

Barnett worked for Boeing for over thirty years. In a series of whistleblower complaints beginning in 2017, Barnett claimed that the company did not sufficiently address safety issues, including those with oxygen masks to be deployed on 787 Dreamliners in the event of a sudden loss of cabin pressure.

After he raised these safety concerns, Barnett claimed, the company illegally retaliated, creating a hostile work environment that forced him to retire from his position. Specifically, Barnett claimed that he was removed from investigations, denied transfers, suffered from harassment and received unfairly negative performance reviews. In 2021, however, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) sided with Boeing in his case.

Tragically, in March this year, Barnett took his own life. In the days leading up to his death, he was providing deposition testimony as part of his appeal against the OSHA ruling. A police report into Barnett’s death concluded that the whistleblower was experiencing a period of “serious personal distress” due to the ongoing legal proceedings.

Barnett is not the only Boeing employee to have raised concerns.

According to a 2019 New York Times investigation, workers at the plant where Barnett was a quality manager had “filed nearly a dozen whistleblower claims and safety complaints with federal regulators, describing issues like defective manufacturing, debris left on planes, and pressure not to report violations.”

Boeing is now facing a protracted crisis, with investors, regulators and even late-night comedians hammering Boeing over production and safety issues. After the Alaska Airlines incident in January, the U.S. Federal Aviation Authority capped 737 Max build rates, in an effort to force the company to prioritise safety over speed.

Barnett believed the biggest problem lay in the company’s culture and management. In January, he told ABC News, "This is a Boeing issue, this is not a 737 issue." 

Boeing says the issues raised by Barnett have been reviewed and addressed.

Image: Transparency International

Protect whistleblowers, or the corrupt?

In 2020, Fidelia Onoghaife was a senior policy advisor at the Embassy of The Netherlands in Abuja, Nigeria, with a promising career in the diplomatic service ahead of her. Her contract had been extended by seven years, and her employers had given “rave reviews” of her performance, according to Nigerian media.

Then, without warning, she was fired.

In 2018, Onoghaife had reported the Dutch Ambassador to Nigeria, Robert Petri, to her employer, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, because she believed he leaked confidential information to senior officials at global fossil fuels giant Shell.  

A subsequent investigation found that Mr Petri had told the local Shell director about an upcoming visit to Nigeria by the Dutch Fiscal Information and Investigation Service (FIOD). At the time, Shell, along with Eni, was under investigation over a suspected US$1 billion in kickbacks paid when buying an offshore oil field in Nigeria.

While Onoghaife was fired, Mr Petri was reassigned to a new position. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs claimed that Onoghaife was dismissed because of her behaviour in the workplace, despite her previously unblemished record at the Embassy.

Onoghaife took her case to the District Court of The Hague, which ruled that her termination was indeed in retaliation for her whistleblowing report. The court ordered the Dutch government to pay her compensation. Like many whistleblowers, Onoghaife had to go through a long and drawn-out legal process in order to enjoy her rights, a process that should have been unnecessary.  

A group of Nigerian and international civil society organisations wrote: “As a whistleblower, Ms Onoghaife should have been furnished with every protection. Instead, she has been put through the mill by her former employer, the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, not only losing her livelihood but also undergoing the stress of court proceedings to obtain justice and redress.”

Whistleblowers like Onoghaife and former Boeing quality manager John Barnett demonstrate immense personal integrity and courage by speaking truth to power in order to protect the public interest.

The U.S. and Netherlands, both advanced democracies with free media environments, have legal protections for whistleblowers on paper. But even in the most theoretically safe jurisdictions, there is enormous room for improvement in workplace culture, internal processes and legal protections for whistleblowers.

What does a better approach look like?

A well-functioning whistleblower system provides safe avenues for concerns to be raised internally within an organisation. Employees like Barnett and Onoghaife are usually the first to notice misconduct, and companies themselves are often best placed to take quick, effective remedial action.

Transparency International’s Best Practice Principles for Internal Whistleblowing Systems states that there should be robust, independent reporting mechanisms in place within companies, organisations and government agencies at all levels. Leaders should visibly support the whistleblower system and encourage employees to make use of the safe and accessible reporting channels available. Organisations should protect the identity of whistleblowers and keep them informed about investigations following their reports.

We all have a role to play. Employees and their representatives should encourage employers to implement effective internal whistleblower systems. An upcoming self-assessment guide by Transparency International will provide a framework for measuring workplace performance, creating an opportunity for workers to start a conversation with senior management.

In many contexts, a cultural shift is needed. We should welcome and value colleagues who report wrongdoing, take their reports seriously and ensure their safety.

While not every company has such an obvious responsibility for public safety as an aircraft manufacturer, nor as important a duty to serve the public interest as a government ministry.  Yet every workplace can and should protect whistleblowers, because doing so will make us all safer.  

Transparency International’s Best practice principles for internal whistleblowing systems were produced under EU-funded Speak Up Europe project. The upcoming Self-assessment questionnaire is being developed under the current EU-funded SAFE 4 Whistleblowers project.

Making the Western Balkans safe for whistleblowers

Across the region, Transparency International chapters and partners are supporting courageous whistleblowers who face retaliation for exposing wrongdoing. They are using their cases to advocate for stronger laws and effective enforcement, so citizens in Western Balkans can speak out in safety.

Learn more

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