May 04 2021

Is there a link between whistleblowing and autism?

David Lewis, Professor of Employment Law and Head of the Whistleblowing Research Unit at Middlesex University, and Helen Evans, former whistleblower at Oxfam with a diagnosis of ASC discuss the benefits of further researching the links between whistleblowing characteristics and those with ASC.

Further research is needed to investigate the link between whistleblowing and autism [1]. Historically, researchers have examined the personality characteristics associated with whistleblowers but a more specific question raised recently is whether workers with diagnoses of Autism Spectrum Conditions (ASC) might be particularly valuable to organisations that are keen to ensure transparency, accountability and good governance.

As a result, we are calling for empirical research to further investigate the link between autism and whistleblowing, and how organisations can support whistleblowers with ASC.

What are Autistic Spectrum Conditions?

There are a range of definitions of autism. According to the National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE), “autism means a developmental disability significantly affecting verbal and non-verbal communication and social interaction. Autism is a spectrum disorder.”  Similarly, the Autism Awareness Centre defines autism as “a lifelong, non-progressive neurological disorder” and the National Autistic Society refers to autism as “a lifelong developmental disability”.

A more neutral description would be that the autistic spectrum consists of a range of neurological developmental conditions that are part of the wider notion of neurodiversity. Instead of regarding variations in sociability, learning, mood and attention as pathological disorders, neurodiversity is consistent with a social model of these conditions which focuses on societal barriers to inclusion. Indeed, the great attraction of using the word neurodiversity is that treats ASC as a normal human variation.  

Key strengths associated with autism can include a strong sense of right and wrong, determination and conviction in their ideas and beliefs, honesty, loyalty and logical thinking. ASC is also associated with difficulties in social interaction, non–verbal communication as well as restricted and repetitive behaviour patterns.

Unsurprisingly, people with ASC who have impaired language and intelligence are less likely to be in jobs. It is estimated that 1.1% of people in the UK are on the autistic spectrum, however, according to the National Autistic Society, only 16% of autistic people are in full-time employment and 43% have said they have left or lost a job because of their condition.

Rather than focus on the general issue of employability of people with ASC, we looked at the particular contribution autistic people could make as workers in an organisation that is keen to identify wrongdoing and take remedial action. As Transparency International persuasively argue, the business case for whistleblowing is a powerful one. Thus, in theory, persons willing and able to speak up effectively should be in great demand.

What is whistleblowing?

The most widely used definition of whistleblowing is “the disclosure by organisation members (former or current) of illegal, immoral or illegitimate practices under the control of their employers, to persons or organisations that may be able to affect action”.  

One of the reasons this definition is not reflected in national legislation is that it refers to matters that are clearly open to wide interpretation. What one person regards as immoral or illegitimate practices may be different to the views of another. The two main reasons why people do not report wrongdoing is that they do not believe that remedial action will be taken and/or that the person raising a concern will suffer retaliation. 

However, researchers have suggested that people with ASC focus more on the outcomes of situations than the intentions of the persons in those situations. Indeed, one reason why those with ASC might be more likely to become whistleblowers is because they may rigidly believe that if something bad happens there will or should be consequences. They may refuse to acknowledge or accept the existence of organisational and other barriers which might prevent rectification of proven wrongdoing.

Autistic people may also be unable to predict accurately what other people may be thinking or feeling and have difficulties reading non-verbal communications. As a result, they may fail to pick up on or chose to ignore the social cues which suggest that reprisals might be suffered even when raising concerns is formally encouraged at the workplace. Alternatively, those with ASC may be well aware of the social consequences, including the possibility or retaliation, but simply not care about them.

Potential issues for Whistleblowers with ASC (WASCs)

The law does not require whistleblowers to conduct their own investigations in order to obtain proof but statutory protection requires workers to have reasonable grounds to believe that wrongdoing will occur, is occurring or has occurred.  

Unfortunately, this can create a risky Catch 22 situation – without investigating there may be no grounds on which to hold a reasonable belief but by investigating a worker may be guilty of misconduct because that is not within their remit.

Nevertheless, a WASC who is convinced that wrongdoing is taking place may be less deterred by this dilemma and choose to take whatever steps are felt necessary to find supporting evidence. If WASC’s put themselves at greater risk of being accused of misconduct, there is an argument that employers should have proper support mechanisms in place for them.

Indeed, a WASC who is keen to pursue a matter might be less likely than others to be deterred by the need to complete detailed forms or follow the templates used by providers of whistleblowing ‘hotlines’. If dissatisfied with the internal response – being ignored or perhaps a decision not to investigate or take remedial action – a WASC’s discomfort with disorder may mean that they are more willing than most people to appeal up the management hierarchy.

WASC’s may raise it repeatedly until it is addressed ‘their’ way, making them more liable to be disciplined for inappropriate behaviour. In a number of cases the courts have drawn a distinction between the disclosure of information about wrongdoing and the manner in which it is made. 

In practice, the particular words used in raising a concern may be important. For example, allegations of  fraud are not likely to be welcomed by managers but explaining that clients are being overcharged may well be better received. WASC’s may look to use the media even though such involvement is likely to be resented by organisations and could result in reprisals.

Disclosures to the media are unlikely to attract legal protection under the Employment Rights Act 1996 (and could give rise to claims against them for breach of confidence). WASC’s may be aware but less influenced by such considerations.

Conclusions

From a wider perspective, there are clear financial benefits to society if talented but previously excluded people are integrated into the workforce.

We have hypothesized that the characteristics commonly associated with ASC might make people with ASC more likely than people with a predominant neurotype to be effective whistleblowers and, as such, are a particular asset to organisations that are keen to ensure transparency, accountability and good governance. 

We believe that hiring people with ASC can bring tangible economic and other benefits to an organisation. We are therefore calling for empirical research to be carried out to explore the following key questions:

  1. Do whistleblowers demonstrate common characteristic traits that are expressed in ways that differ to the population in general?
  2. If there are common characteristics demonstrated by whistleblowers that differ to the population in general, how do these correlate with common characteristic traits to be found in people with autism spectrum condition? 
  3. What additional needs might a whistleblower with autism spectrum condition have compared to a whistleblower without this condition in order to be effective at raising concerns and how can this inform reporting arrangements?

[1] This contribution is based on a discussion paper entitled “Autistic employees as whistleblowers: are employers ignoring potentially valuable assets? This is available via the Middlesex University e-repository.

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