Episode 8- Wim Vandekerckhove- Whistleblowing and Management during the Pandemic


Sahana: Hi everyone! Today, we have with us Wim Vandekerckhove. He is a Reader in Business Ethics at the University of Greenwich. His central areas of interest are whistle blowing and philosophy of management. To know more about his research, please check here.

As a background for our audience, I thought I'll just share a tiny bit about whistleblowing. So, whistleblowing is the disclosure of information related to corrupt, illegal, fraudulent or hazardous activities being committed in or by public or private sector organisations. These activities are of concern to or threaten the public interest. Wim has worked extensively on various aspects of whistleblowing including its relation to democratic values, organisational social responsibility, the legal aspects of it. You can check his publications here.

Okay- to start with, I thought we could talk about whistleblowers in the context of the pandemic situation, especially the case of Li Wenliang. So, Li Wenliang was a Chinese ophthalmologist who worked at Wuhan Central Hospital. In December 2019, he had issued emergency warnings to local Wuhan hospitals about a number of mysterious pneumonia cases discovered in the city over the previous week. On 30th of December, he received an internal diagnostic report of a suspected severe acute respiratory syndrome which he shared with his other friends. Now, what the report seems to be saying is that he had requested confidentiality from these friends but later, he was dubbed a whistleblower- after the report was publicly circulated. So, in this case, there's a very complex relation between socio-political atmosphere, the intention of the doctor, the actual consequence of the whistleblowing. So how would you look at this case of whistleblowing- what kind of dimensions surface for you in this case?


Wim: Well, it is a very interesting case..very fascinating case for many reasons. One of the main reasons why I think this is a fascinating case is that this person raised the concern about something that really affects all of us and whistleblowers in the healthcare sector, they resonate a lot more than whistleblowers in the financial sector. Although this also happens with whistleblowers in finance, with regard to financial fraud- this also affects us but very often, corruption, bribery is seen as a victimless crime because it's not immediately visible or attributable. This is different from the healthcare sector. So, for example, in the UK, there've been a lot of whistleblowing cases in the National Health Service and so, this is the most prominent topic of whistleblowing in the UK- it's National Health Service. Why? Because it affects all of us. Everyone needs doctors hospitals or they have parents or children, so they can really easily identify with those that are harmed by the wrongdoing or the malpractice and I think the case of Chinese whistleblower in your Covid related case is also very important- it's almost universal, that we can easily relate to that. I think that’s one reason why it's a fascinating case.

I think the other reason is that as you mentioned, it's first quite confidential and later was identified as a whistleblower- so this is what typically happens- it’s a very protracted process and one way in which scholarship has for a long time approached whistleblowing is as a one-off decision but it's not a one-off decision- it's a really long process and somewhere along that process, other people identify someone as "You're a whistleblower now!" or you know people who have been raising concerns come to identify and see themselves as whistleblowers, but that's not how they started out. They start as someone who's just pointing out a mistake or just raising a concern or just asking a question and it very very quickly becomes clear that "Well, that was the wrong question to ask.”- so, in a sense that although it's a very big issue- very big case if you want, it is perhaps different from Chelsea Manning, perhaps different from Edward Snowden- this is a case that you could say is much more typical of whistleblowing cases. Even the smaller ones because of this clearly protracted process of asking a question, raising a concern locally, internally but then keeping on doing it because no one is listening.


...one way in which scholarship has for a long time approached whistleblowing is as a one-off decision but it's not a one-off decision- it's a really long process and somewhere along that process, other people identify someone as "You're a whistleblower now!" or you know people who have been raising concerns come to identify and see themselves as whistleblowers, but that's not how they started out....


Sahana: So,what you just said sort of reminds me of this other point I wanted to share and discuss with you- I think Le would be an internal whistleblower, right? So, to tell us the difference between internal and external whistleblowers- could you tell us who are the people who could have been potential external whistleblowers in this case like- given that this is the novel coronavirus, so- medically, people outside the community might not have even known but where could have been there being more transparency?


Wim: Yeah, the question is was he was an external whistleblower? Or did someone take over at some point? I guess, you know, those would be the details of the case. I am still thinking of the three female whistleblowers that were, in Time Magazine- they are persons of the year- it's a long time ago- around the turn of the century and for at least two of them, it was the same. They were actually internal whistleblowers and then someone leaked their internal whistleblowing to the press for example-so, at some, you get a different dynamic and this just comes to show why I’m not such a fan of making the distinction between internal or external. I'm not against it but you need to be clear that every external whistleblowing is always preceded by an internal whistleblowing- that is the important insight and I also think that that is where attitude change needs to happen- that might be a naive assertion to make but that is probably where this thing called organisation is problematic because it is too easy for blindness and deafness to occur within this thing called organisation.


Sahana: So- I was thinking on a related note, what would be the role of anonymity given the internet era. So, today anyone can go and anonymously share reports on various platforms and in your perspective, what are the positive and negative aspects of this ability to share especially in a time of crisis like this?


Wim: Yeah. I think there's a couple of things- one important thing is that people sometimes overestimate their anonymity, so technically speaking- these are great systems. You can have them online or via an app and you can actually communicate anonymously and I've heard this from organisations who use that this- it can facilitate communication- so, organisations who really want to get this right can really use it to everyone's advantage because it is true that for someone to make a report or to raise that concern, even internally, research has shown that their biggest worry is one around confidentiality and if you can really guarantee that no one will know that it is you who raised the concern- for a lot of people, that allows them to actually make make the concern right and so, you can ask a question back. You can have two-way communication without anyone knowing who is who. So, technologically, this is a major step- really good- however, it seems to be a fundamental way that our brains are wired that when a concern is raised, its fundamental human response seems to be "Who said that?". In the UK, there's a case of a big bank with the CEO. Someone had raised concerns anonymously or in confidence with the compliance officer about a senior person's appointment and when the compliance officer approached the board of directors, the CEO tried to find out who it was and the compliance officer said- "I'm not gonna say, okay?"- so, this attempt- "Who is it? And I was at- I can't say who said that- but it was a meeting or a seminar with other compliance officers of a number of companies and they were saying this is not an exception when we approach the board and we say "Okay, we've had an internal whistleblower and this is serious- we really need to look at this..we really need to investigate.", and the first question you always get is "Who was it?". It comes down to the courage and the strength of the compliance officer to then say, "I'm not going to tell you who it is." and they were saying sometimes, compliance officers are under tremendous pressure to give away the identity- we do have a problem there. Even with these anonymous systems, people try to find out. If you have a small team and you raise a concern about something that only a few people can know about, it's sometimes very easy to guess who the person is. So I do think that, you know, technologically speaking this two-way anonymous- it's a computer interface, it's a big step forward but everything still depends on the attitude with which you run these whistleblowing systems. You need to want to listen. As long as that's not there, whistleblowing is going to go wrong so very often. People seem to think that the problem with whistleblowing policies is you need to get more people to raise concerns, more people to blow the whistle and my point is like- that's not true. We've got enough whistleblowers. What really needs to change is we need to get the people that they raise concerns with- they need to listen more and need to act upon whistleblowing more. So, I'm not against whistleblowers but I'm just saying it's not enough that people are asking the right questions and enough people are raising concerns. We need to get organisations much better at listening and acting upon it.


People seem to think that the problem with whistleblowing policies is you need to get more people to raise concerns, more people to blow the whistle and my point is like- that's not true. We've got enough whistleblowers. What really needs to change is we need to get the people that they raise concerns with- they need to listen more and need to act upon whistleblowing more.


Sahana: So, that marks the end of the first segment on whistleblowing- so now on to the next segment about work and management during the pandemic.. so I want to focus on some points that you had raised in your recent editorial note in the journal "Philosophy of Management"- we have linked this note in the description as well. Discussing the prospects of philosophical inquiry into disaster management, you have looked at the works of many people including Tanguay-Renaud's 2009 paper, Naomi Zack, Melnick and Bernheim, Walzer. In your perspective, what kinds of insights have emerged from the responses of different levels of management to Covid19?


Wim: Yeah. I think there's a bunch of questions that I haven't read answers to yet. I wrote this introduction, because I noticed that in the journal, we had published papers on disaster management and just reading them back, I thought that and afterwards, I heard from one of the authors that was saying like "Yeah, you're absolutely right”. If we're now going to write about disaster management, it's very likely we're going to come to different positions and at least, come to them from different reflections or different considerations. So, I think this is really fascinating. I think it's also something that normal line management will need to look at. It’s not just medics that need to come to a scene where a natural disaster has happened and need to decide on limited resources- it's almost like every organisation needs to do that kind of thinking and some organisations seem to be a little bit better prepared.

I've got a business class starting in a couple of weeks and one of the things we'll be looking at is how management has responded to the pandemic and what is a better response than another one. To give one example.. Amazon said, in March, to its workers, "You know, we're gonna increase wages and the increase will be until June.". In March, with the prognosis we had around a pandemic, everyone thought like it'd be a couple of weeks- so, a pay raise until the end of June seems very comfortable. Tha changed very quickly and this was a pay raise for workers who were being paid around the minimum wage to start with, so a pay raise was like “It's not really a virtuous thing you know, it's something that you should have done ages ago here.” but then to say "Oh and at the end of June we're going to take that back."- you can predict that in March that this is going to go wrong. Another example- a different company which I think managed a lot better during the pandemic.. they did not say, "We're gonna have a pay increase.".They said in March, "There's a one-off bonus we're going to give because everyone's going to have a hard time- whatever your situation"- so you know, a one one-off bonus now. If you look at behavioural signs, the fact that they’re going to be taking away a pay increase is really a bad idea. People are not going to like that. A one-off bonus, unconsciously, we're gonna experience that as more fair. Getting a pay increase for a couple of months then it's taken back- we're going to experience that as unfair. So, I think regardless of moral character, this was just a stupid thing- it's a stupid management mistake. There's going to be a lot of that when you analyse management decisions during the pandemic. You're going to see a lot of- it's just plain stupid, right? Regardless of the ethical question.

We can analyse the ethics of management or at least the experiences now, the things we've done during the pandemic. Because a lot of our students are working students, we've asked them to write a short blog of their experiences and at the moment, I'm going through these and analysing them a bit- what ethical reasoning is in there. It's fascinating- so, just to give you one example. There's a blog by one of our students and what the student did was he actually planned to do some volunteering in hospitals during the pandemic. He had a part-time job doing some sales, so he said- “I was getting bored working from home, so I decided that I would volunteer at the hospital to give something back to the NHS. I felt proud to be doing something that made a difference.” There's a whole lot of ethical reasoning in there, okay? There's virtue ethics in there, because being bored is not something virtuous persons are. So, instead, he decided to do something active and generous- volunteering at the hospital, so there’s virtue ethics reasoning in there. There is also, "I'm going to volunteer at a hospital to give something back to the NHS"- giving something back to society- that's a form of reasoning we come across a lot in CSR and you could ask- "Well, why do you think you've taken something in the first place? You need to give back because if you wouldn't give back, would it make you feel like you've stolen something?.” He hasn't stolen anything from a hospital but it is sort of a Kantian deontological reasoning. I'm not sure that this is conscious ethical reasoning going on but it's there.

The most fascinating thing is the last part of that quote- I felt proud to be doing something that made a difference- that's your existentialism. And that's the thing I had in mind when writing that Intro editorial to the volume of Philosophy of Management and I think because of the pandemic, we need to reach back to existentialism and there's a couple of reasons about that. Existentialism talks about courage in the face of absurdity and the pandemic is something absurd- you cannot predict what is going on, no one could predict a series of events- that we've seen and how our time framing is totally changing. It also means that doing the right thing is not a matter of being a hero. What you read then- what he is so proud of- is he actually preparing a hot meal for the doctors and nurses who were running really long shifts at the hospital and that is him making a difference. He writes about how happy the doctors and nurses were and I can fully understand. It's a small thing you know- it's cooking a meal for someone but it's so humanly real that those really are the things that really matter and it's not like this is a new insight but I think that the pandemic really reminds us of these fundamental things. It reminds us in all spheres of life but I think it also reminds us in the context of managing and what you can do as a manager to actually create good relationships at work. If you're not going to do those fundamental things, you're gonna do the small things that really matter wrong, and managing during a pandemic, it's really important to get those things right. Those are moments that will create or destroy the culture in your organisation for years to come. If you get it wrong now, it's going to be a hard time repairing that and so I think authenticity is important not in the big plan, in the big strategies but in the small things because the normal ideological routines and rational moral justifications don't work anymore, because the situation is so absurd. You need to strike at a fundamental human level now. I'm really looking forward to seeing the analyses of management during the pandemic as to, you know, what really made a difference and what made people experience their managers as fair and just during the pandemic.


It also means that doing the right thing is not a matter of being a hero....It's a small thing you know- it's cooking a meal for someone but it's so humanly real that those really are the things that really matter...authenticity is important not in the big plan, in the big strategies but in the small things because the normal ideological routines and rational moral justifications don't work anymore, because the situation is so absurd.


Sahana: I was actually going to ask you in the last question, about you re-reading The Plague by Camus and what you had felt so- that's pretty much all the questions I wanted to ask.

I thought I would end with a quote from Camus's The Plague. For our audience- "But what does it mean, the plague? It's life, that's all.... They knew now that if there is one thing that one can always yearn for and sometimes attain, it is human love." I kept it very short ..I cut down a lot of it in between. Thank you so much for doing this!


Wim: Thank you for reaching out and for this conversation and I must say I think that's a perfect quote to end.


Sahana: You answered the last question I was just about to ask you, so I found some quote which would fit in with the kind of sensitivity that you were saying this time required. Thank you so much, thank you!


Wim: Okay bye-bye!


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