Norway: Whistle-blowing and freedom of speech in the workplace

New research suggests that, while the observed amount of wrongdoing in Norwegian workplaces and the proportion of employees who chose to report this has remained relatively stable, the number of reprisals against whistle-blowers rose between 2013 and 2016, while the effectiveness of employees’ freedom of speech against their employers declined.

Introduction

In recent years, whistle-blowing and freedom of speech in the workplace have attracted widespread public attention in Norway. Legal provisions on whistle-blowing, which were added to the Working Environment Act, came into force in 2007.

Although employees’ freedom of speech has, on paper, never been greater, parts of the Norwegian labour market have been described as having a culture of fear, with employees being ‘muzzled’.

A recent report, Whistle-blowing and freedom of speech in Norwegian working life 2016, studied employees’ assessments of their freedom of speech and the degree to which they chose to expose wrongdoing at work. The report analyses results from a nationally representative survey covering the Norwegian labour market with 3,155 respondents. It follows up and repeats questions posed in a comprehensive study of freedom of speech in Norway in 2010, as well as a 2013 survey on whistle-blowing.

The main research topics comprise the following:

  • internal and external opportunities for exercising freedom of speech
  • familiarity with routines for reporting discrepancies and for whistle-blowing
  • when wrongdoing is reported – about what and to whom
  • how the whistle-blowers are dealt with
  • how the cases are dealt with.

(Two related reports were published simultaneously using sample representatives of members in seven different trade unions and employees at Oslo University Hospital.)

Key findings

The findings raise concern about the growing number of whistle-blowers who report that they have experienced reprisals for speaking out.

There was a clear increase between 2013 and 2016 in the proportion of employees who said they had experienced reprisals, plus a clearly reduced proportion of employees who would be willing to speak out again. There is also a decline in the proportion of whistle-blowers who said their concerns were met, or that their action improved the situation.

The report is the latest of several large survey-based studies of whistle-blowing conducted during the past decade in Norway. Some studies have targeted Norwegian employees across sectors and industries. Others have concentrated on selected sectors or groups of professions, while some have targeted specific functions – for example, managers, trade union representatives or safety delegates. Table 1 shows the variations in findings, along selected key variables.

Table 1: Variations in findings on whistle-blowing
  Statistics Norway Living Conditions Survey 2006 Matthiesen et al (2008) Trygstad (2010) Bjørkelo et al (2010) Status for freedom of speech in Norway 2013  Trygstad and Ødegård (2016)
Whistle-blowing activity 77% 55%* 53% 12%* 64% 53%
Effectiveness of whistle-blowing 51% 50% 59% 52% 36%
Exposed to reprisals 12% 18% 13% 7% 15% 25%
Proportion that would blow the whistle-blow again 81% 82% 84% 71%

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

* Percentage estimated on the basis of the total sample, not on the basis of those familiar with reprehensible conditions in the workplace.

Note: See source for details of individual studies.

Source: Whistle-blowing and freedom of speech in Norwegian working life 2016 (Table 7.1)

With the exception of the questions on whistle-blowing that were included in the Norwegian Living Conditions Survey 2006 (before the legal provisions on whistle-blowing came into effect), identical questions were used in the different surveys. The table shows that the proportion of employees who chose to report wrongdoing or censurable conditions remained relatively stable from 2008 to 2016, although the proportion in 2013 was higher than in other studies.

However, the proportion of whistle-blowers who said that the issue they were highlighting was solved or had improved because of their action declined between 2013 and 2016. Furthermore, the proportion of employees who said they had faced reprisals because of their action is the highest recorded in Norwegian working life, well above previous studies.

There was a clearly reduced proportion of those reporting their willingness to do the same again should they find themselves in a similar position.

The authors stress that these findings are cause for concern.

Internal and external tolerance

The survey finds that, in general, Norwegian workers encounter no problems in discussing work-related issues at work and among colleagues. However, one in four employees who voiced criticism encountered management displeasure. This is a significantly higher proportion than was seen in a chapter by one of the study’s authors, Sissel Trygstad, in a 2014 report, The status of freedom of speech in Norway, which asked the same question of a representative sample of Norwegian employees.

The report also examined the respondents’ assessments of their right to voice concerns externally – publicly raising concerns about work-related issues in ways that do not violate a statutory duty of confidentiality. Some 33% of Norwegian employees questioned believed that their opportunity to voice their concerns publicly about serious wrongdoing was restricted by their superiors. Some 34% of employees reported having signed an agreement with their employer restricting their opportunity to speak out publicly.

Knowledge of legal provisions on whistle-blowing

Provisions on whistle-blowing were added to the Norwegian Working Environment Act in 2007. The main aim was to provide employees with a right to report wrongdoing in the workplace and to improve safeguards against reprisals. Familiarity with the provisions on whistle-blowing and a system that facilitates this are consequently key to ensuring protection for whistle-blowers.

The report found that 43% of Norwegian employees had not been familiar with these provisions before reading about them in the questionnaire. Even fewer trade union representatives (14%) and managers (20%) were familiar with the provisions. In total, this is a lower proportion than in 2010, when the same question was asked. The report also found that most Norwegian employees have never discussed what should be seen as wrongdoing, or how the term whistle-blowing should be understood.

How are censurable conditions addressed?

Altogether, 16% of those who responded to the survey had witnessed or experienced wrongdoing or censurable conditions during the preceding year. Most cases were related to the working environment in general and management in particular. The most prevalent issues included the following:

  • ‘destructive leadership that is detrimental to the working environment’
  • ‘violations of ethical guidelines’
  • ‘conditions that may pose a risk to life and health’.

Some 53% of those who had witnessed or experienced one or more such incidents during the preceding year chose to report it. This proportion of whistle-blowing activity is in line with results from other Norwegian studies.

The main reason for remaining silent is fear of retaliation or unpleasant consequences.

Fear of retaliation is more widespread among the respondents than in previous Norwegian studies. The findings of the report further indicate that such fears may be justified; 25% of Norwegian employees who reported wrongdoing had met with reprisals. This is a significantly higher proportion than seen in all previous studies covering the Norwegian labour market.

Effectiveness of whistle-blowing

A total of 36% of the 258 self-reported whistle-blowers who answered the survey believed that their whistle-blowing had a positive effect on the issue. This is a lower proportion than seen in previous Norwegian studies (see Table 1). Four out of 10 respondents in the 2016 study believed that their whistle-blowing had no effect (either negative or positive). The authors of the report fear that this limited effectiveness of whistle-blowing may contribute to silencing other potential whistle-blowers. At the same time, the study shows that it is not only managers who have a low tolerance of criticism and whistle-blowing – colleagues can also contribute to establishing a working environment in which exposing wrongdoing may entail major personal repercussions.

Commentary

While the observed amount of wrongdoing in Norwegian workplaces and the proportion of employees who chose to report it appears to have remained relatively stable, the conditions for those who do report seem to be worsening. A growing proportion of whistle-blowers report that they face reprisals and fewer report that their actions had the desired effect. The authors of the report argue that these results are a cause for concern for the situation faced by whistle-blowers despite the attention given to the issue by the media and legislators. Overall, the results indicate that a significant proportion of employees find it difficult to voice criticism and report wrongdoing. The authors argue that it will be essential to discuss measures that can promote a culture in which criticism and whistle-blowing are tolerated and handled constructively.

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