Compliances, le Magazine – numéro 4 de l’Automne 2019.

Jean-Jacques QUANG, Director Ethicaline has published the article in Compliances Magazine, edition N°4 - 2019 (see Magazine here).

Sa tribune traite du signalement, des lanceurs d’alerte et la perception associée la sémantique utilisée. Celle-ci est tout d’abord culturelle et non universelle, mais la sémantique et la terminologie utilisées influent grandement sur la lanceur d’alerte, lorsqu’il s’apprête à reporter un signalement.

Translated article here:

In an era of transparency, business ethics and social & environmental responsibility, every individual is encouraged in the day-to-day environment, either professional or private, offline or online, to become an actor, a proactive and positive contributor and to live and to uphold those values.

This could be observed with the proliferation of whistleblowing regulations, encouraging individuals to come forward and report misconduct and unethical behaviours, in most of the OECD countries. And the information leaks which happen every now and then - though with a more and more frequent fashion - such as Wikileaks, Snowden, Panama Papers, and recent political scandals revealed thanks to the Press and social medias, are just the direct consequence of this whistleblowing activity from concerned citizens.

Although the decision to come forward seems trivial and obvious in the light of this societal aspiration for greater good, and at the same time so embedded in our mobile-connected way of living and behaviours - aren’t we all prompt to raise our smartphone as an extension of our hand, to capture an event and to share any information in our grasp on twitter, instagram and facebook? - ; the practicability, however, to make the move is still hindered by deep self-questioning, especially in the business and corporate environment. Such reflection does not pertain to the moral gesture of exposing unethical behaviours, but rather on how it is going to be perceived by peers and alikes both in private and public spheres.

Incidentally, this perception conundrum has been acutely described by Francis Chateauraynaud, psychologist and researcher at “l’École des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales”, in which the whistleblower is qualified as “a dark precursor” in his published work “The Dark Precursors - a pragmatic and sociological approach of risk and whistleblower report".

Reporting and blowing the whistle are too often associated with treason, accusation. Sociologically speaking, exposing events or individuals is often perceived as a breach in the intrinsic loyalty of belonging to a community or an organization.

In France, this perception, subjective in essence, is even further magnified but our historical legacy, known as “the darkest hours of history”, which would characterize the civic duty of reporting of wrongdoings and unethical practices as lethal as “collaboration and denunciation during Occupation time”.

This perception is not universal, obviously, but is rather influenced the historical and cultural legacy of each nation. Take the United States, the concept of whistleblowing, emerged in the 19th century during the conquest of the far west, has already encompassed the ideas of uncovering unacceptable behaviours and irregularities while protecting those who came forward. The perception is then associated with the heroic gesture of revealing opaque systems and behind-the-scene games of powers, while protecting public interest.

The semantics used to characterize whistleblowing also plays a substantial role in how the activity and the actors are perceived in their environment.

Whether in French, with the terminology “lanceur d’alerte” (to raise an alert), or in English "whistleblowing"; the semantics used infers that events reported are of extreme gravity. Hence, the self-questioning on the necessary act of revealing, but in the same time, facing the concerns associated with perception.

In US and UK environment, the terminology commonly used today is “Speak-Up”, to designated whistleblowing line. This semantics induces the notion of dialogues, exchanges and communication, which are more likely to put the report into context, taking into account the environment in which event happened. Such an approach provides more comfort and confidence to individuals who wish to come forward, as those interactions are reassuring, when it comes to relevance of facts to be reported and gauge the fallout from regulatory rights and protection standpoints.

In France, the concept of whistleblower, as it was formulated in the 1990s by Francis Chateauraynaud, has often been associated with health scandals, politico-economic affairs of a certain gravity. The semantics of "ligne d’alerte" integrates this destabilizing and paralyzing gravity, when taking decision to report, although reprehensible event itself is not questioned.

Today, terms such as "ethics line" or "internal reporting line" are more and more observed, with the regulatory obligation of setting an ethics line in France and soon all over Europe.

Senior management in Corporate world have now clearly grasped the challenges, but also the opportunities of an efficient internal reporting line ; as it is a powerful prevention and detection media for any event or incident that would need immediate response and correction, before it goes public, with far more damages. In this respect, Speak-Up line are fully part of Corporate Governance’s agenda, to leverage those reports into “trusted conversations”, with which Management proactively promote company’s ethics and values.

So, the use of semantics does indeed have a profound impact on perception of a “whistleblowing line” and on how it is going to be used in the corporate world. It could turn a hesitation of coming forward and reporting reprehensible events, into contributive and collaborative act from whistleblowers, to protect common interest and incidentally their working environment.


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