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Suspected wrongdoing? Contact the Confidential Counsellor for Malpractice

What should University staff do if they see something that doesn’t seem quite right? This could be excessive spending on a project, the improper use of a lab or anything else that seems slightly suspect. If you find yourself in a situation that leaves you feeling uneasy, you can always contact the Confidential Counsellor for Malpractice for advice.

A person who exposes wrongdoing is known as a whistleblower. As whistleblowers in the Netherlands have faced repercussions in the past, it is now considered necessary to protect them. Since last summer, Gert de Boer has been the new Confidential Counsellor for Malpractice at Leiden University. He is there to support and advise students and staff who suspect malpractice.

Gert de Boer, Confidential Counsellor for Malpractice
Gert de Boer: 'The rules may be open to interpretation.'

Safety

‘Safety’ is the word that De Boer uses most, and he is keen to emphasise how he wants to create a safe environment in which people are free to speak their minds and are not held back by worries about possible consequences. ‘I don’t agree with the phrase that you sometimes hear: the fewer reports, the better. If few concerns are raised, this can mean people don’t feel safe and are scared of repercussions.’ De Boer will always protect the person who has raised a concern.

Critical questions

This doesn’t mean that De Boer will shy away from critical questions. ‘Obviously, I begin by asking what is going on. I then ask the person if they are sure that they really did witness what they think they witnessed, and whether other people also saw the same. The task of the confidential counsellor is to get to the heart of the matter. Is it really about the matter at hand or are other things at play? What are the different interests in the case? Could this be about different interpretation of rules or a difference of opinion? The person who has raised the concern could also be conditioned. You need to rule out the possibility of this being a misunderstanding rather than malpractice.’

Meeting

The confidential counsellor also looks at whether clarity can be gained by bringing the two sides together. In 98% of the reported cases, a resolution is reached in a meeting between the person who has raised the concern and the person to whom the concern relates. In more serious cases, the confidential counsellor can submit the case to the Committee on Whistleblowing. The person who has raised the concern will always be consulted and their permission asked before any steps are taken. They always have the last word and are the one to decide whether the case will be submitted to the Committee on Whistleblowing.

First talk to your manager

Toch is de vertrouwenspersoon niet de eerst aangewezen persoon om een misstand te melden. Dat is de leidinggevende. Daar kan omheen gegaan worden als de situatie daar aanleiding toe geeft, bijvoorbeeld als het vermoeden juist de leidinggevende betreft. Dan kan de vertrouwenspersoon Misstanden rechtstreeks worden benaderd. ‘Je kunt stellen dat ik de noodknop ben’, vat De Boer het kort en bondig samen.

However, De Boer is not the first person to contact if you suspect wrongdoing. First try talking to your manager, unless of course this is impossible in the circumstances, for instance if your manager is the person about whom you have concerns. ‘Think of me as the emergency brake’, is how De Boer puts it.

Who is Gert de Boer?
Gert de Boer is the owner of 8 Hoog consultancy. He also works a few days a week as operational director at a project secondment company for interim experts in oil and gas extraction. In the past, he has worked at the Ministry of Justice and has gradually come to specialise in change management. He has followed courses in psychology and mediation, specialising in criminal justice. He has also followed the certified training of the National Association for Confidential Counsellors. He lives and works in The Hague and Zwolle.

When do the Regulations on Whistleblowers apply?

The Regulations on Whistleblowers apply to the following instances: if a criminal offence has been committed, if the health or safety of individuals is endangered, if the environment is at risk of being damaged or if the proper functioning of the University in endangered by improper behaviour or negligence. The last category is very broad.

Anonymity

Certain timeframes apply to the process to prevent cases being filed away in the back drawer or vanishing into thin air. The anonymity of the person who has raised the concern is guaranteed in all phases of the process. The confidential counsellor and the Committee on Whistleblowing report solely to the Executive Board, in anonymised form only. If you notice something that looks like wrongdoing, you can feel safe in the knowledge that you will be protected. And if you want to report wrongdoing outside the University, you can do this through the Dutch Whistleblowers Authority.

This is the second in a series of interviews with the confidential counsellors at Leiden University. Read the interview with the Confidential Counsellor for Undesirable Behaviour.

Text: Corine Hendriks
Photo Gert de Boer: ©Nicole Romijn
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