• 28th August 2019

Does the UAE encourage whistleblowing?

Whistleblowing and the protection of whistleblowers’ rights have become commonplace in many countries, although there is still work to be done on truly changing cultures. In the UAE, the idea of speaking-up is less well established, in large part due to the potential for retaliation due to the limited whistleblower protections available.

Whilst still a long way off being standard practice across the region, in November 2018 the  Dubai International Financial Centre (DIFC) issued a law which makes it obligatory to disclose certain conduct, and offers protection to those that do so.

The DIFC Law No. 7 of 2018 states that an individual with a “reasonable suspicion” of a contravention to DIFC Law who discloses this in “good faith” will not be subject to:

  • Any legal or contractual liability
  • Enforcement of a contractual, civil or other remedies; or
  • Dismissal or other detrimental activity from their employer

More than this, anyone who defies these protections may face a fine of up to $30,000 USD. The other Emirates have also taken steps to encourage whistleblowing such as the ‘Inform the Prosecution’ App in Abu Dhabi, which allows individuals to report wrongdoings and send photos of video of these taking place.

Given the relative recency of these developments, measuring their effectiveness is not yet feasible, but the message is clear, that a change in culture is coming.

What can organisations do to encourage whistleblowing?

Whilst the DIFC Law is a step in the right direction it is not clear exactly what the expectations are around reporting as terms such as “reasonable suspicion” and “good faith” are undefined. Additionally, this Law relates to contraventions of DIFC Law only meaning not all types of ‘wongdoing’ are covered.

It is also worth noting that the messaging around speaking-up, in both the Dubai and Abu Dhabi instances is very legalistic, rather than ethically motivated. In the DIFC there is a potential fine of up to $10,000 USD for someone who is found not to have blown the whistle when they ‘should’ have. The naming of the Abu Dhabi App ‘Inform the Prosecution’ also suggests that once the message is sent, it will be very hard to stop the legal process. This can all prove extremely daunting for many people seeking the courage to speak-up.

In the UK and many other countries, organisations take the lead and create a more ethically-focused approach within their own business. They tend to install whistleblowing hotlines, either internally run or, more effective still, an independently managed hotline. They then actively promote this with the messaging focused on ‘doing the right thing’ rather than on the consequences if you do not. Here the focus is on getting people comfortable speaking up without worrying them that they will lose control of the situation.

Below we outline a few steps that clients of Safecall, a leading external whistleblowing hotline, have found effective within organisations operating around the world:

Be clear about local rules and regulations

Whether you are a regulated business or operating in a country with existing laws around whistleblowing it is essential that you as an organisation understand your responsibilities in terms of protecting your staff. If you are unsure or do not have an in-house team then seek legal advice to clarify this for you.

Create a transparent policy

Write a compliance and whistleblowing policy that clearly spells out what you expect from your employees, for example, the types of issues you would like them to raise. This must be accessible to all, meaning that the language is easy to follow and that copies are widely available. You should also:

  • Ensure there is a summary document that explains how to make a report and what it will mean for the person making the report
  • Ask a group of employees from across the business to read the whistleblowing policy and explain back to you what they think the policy says

Shout about it

By telling your employees that you want to hear about their concerns, you are demonstrating your interest in hearing what worries, catching issues early and improving their professional life. The benefits of this far outweigh the common concern that by implementing and promoting a whistleblowing policy it gives impression that there is a high number of problems within the organisation.

Think about your audience

Understanding how your employees access information is vital to ensuring everyone in the organisation hears the same message. Speak to your marketing team about previous successful internal campaigns to find out what works and what doesn’t. Issues to consider include:

  • Whether employees prefer to make a call to a hotline or submit their report online
  • Where employees take notice of posters. We have one client who has found that posters in toilet cubicles are the most effective as they give people a private space to note down the hotline phone number
  • How remote workers are likely to report a concern (for example, via the intranet)

Ensure the process is transparent

Make sure the reporting process is clear. A person who is contemplating telling you what they know will always be more comfortable if they understand what happens once they have raised an issue. All they should be focused on is contacting you and telling their story, which is no small thing. Before they contact the hotline they should know:

  • Who will be at the other end of the line
  • That they are allowed to remain anonymous if required
  • They will be able to speak to someone in their native language
  • It's safe, and it's clear who will receive their concern

Provide and receive feedback

The more good outcomes you can talk about, the more calls you are likely to get. If someone used the hotline to report a concern that was dealt with positively, then let people know. This clearly needs to be done correctly, keeping all aspects of confidentiality and anonymity intact. When people tell you what they think, take note.

In summary

Of course the culture of a country plays a huge part in how effective whistleblowing policies are. Whilst the UAE has been behind many other countries in respect to protecting whistleblowers the recent steps demonstrate the commitment of the region to be an economic hub for global organisations.

Anyone operating a business in the UAE should therefore take note and begin to enact their own compliance and governance frameworks to ensure their success as the region progresses.