Although whistleblowers have legal protection, many organisations lack a culture that encourages them to come forward. Dorothy McKinney explains how employers’ attitudes need to change
If the personnel department received a letter from a ‘whistleblower’ in the 1970s, we’d have torn it up and put it in bin. What else were we supposed to do? There were always going to be a few moaners.
Even though the Public Interest and Disclosure Act has now been in force for 20 years, imposing clear legal guidance and protection for whistleblowers who expose illegal or potentially damaging practices, it is debatable how far attitudes have moved on since this time. Do we really fully understand or appreciate the status of the whistleblower?
HR, and managers more generally, can still be guilty of apathy and confusion – essentially seeing whistleblowing employees as troublemakers who are just trying to assert their own personal agendas, acting in ways that ultimately could make their employment untenable by questioning practices and the authority that has allowed them to happen. It’s a dangerous situation given that not responding to whistleblowers in the appropriate way is illegal.
The Act is very clear. Employees are wholly entitled to speak out when they have grounds to blow the whistle. This could be on anything from highlighting a criminal offence or a failure to comply with laws, to a miscarriage of justice, risk to health and safety, or environmental damage. Employees also need to be given every protection from threats of dismissal and attempts to silence them. Quite reasonably, employees shouldn’t be gagged by organisations and individuals who appear to be more interested in preserving their reputations than justice and the public good.
So it’s important that HR teams understand the differences between agitation, grievances and whistleblowing. There can sometimes be a fine line between these different situation – but that excuse won’t hold up in court if it’s clear that the case hasn’t been investigated or understood properly.
In particular there needs to be an understanding of what whistleblowing means or is likely to look like in the sector they’re working in. In the healthcare sector, for example, whistleblowing is set in the context of intense pressures, demands and scrutiny of many different staff and stakeholders, and, at the same time, high levels of responsibility to the public and a fundamental need for transparency. Every day, behind-closed-doors practices can suddenly be seen as a legitimate area of public interest – as demonstrated by the scandal at the Gosport War Memorial Hospital and the use of opioids without medical justification since the 1980s. Senior nurses had attempted to act as a whistleblowers in 1991 but were warned by hospital authorities not to speak out further. It’s believed at least 450 patients died early due to the opioid policy.
Employees are able to argue that they have experienced a ‘detriment’ to their employment if attempts to blow the whistle are not listened to. What needs to be established is that the detriment has a direct link to the employee who raised the issue and that the issue is covered by the act. It is the tribunal that gets to decide on these points – not the employer.
It’s true that a good reason why employers have traditionally lacked knowledge and understanding of whistleblowing is the rarity of cases. But this is changing: employees are becoming more aware of their rights; workplace culture is evolving in the wake of high-profile sexual harassment and bullying cases; and public levels of trust in senior leaders is generally being eroded. Employees may now feel in a stronger position to speak out about bad practices – that they in fact have a moral right to do so, and there is less of a stigma associated with blowing the whistle.
Organisations use workshops by companies such as CMP Solutions to help ensure they have a whistleblowing policy in place, just as they do for grievances. But what employers need to focus on most of all is a culture of healthy conversations. Whistleblowing only happens when a culture has gone wrong – when people feel they’re not or won’t be listened to; when they’ve tried the informal routes and were blocked or ignored; when they’re worried about the repercussions of not making a problem public; or are concerned about how attitudes to them will change.
When organisations ignore staff who have concerns, situations will fester – into disillusionment and disengagement, gossip, and even conflict. We’re still working in a world where staff are frightened to speak out, even when it comes to serious malpractices, and where most incidents of whistleblowing come in the form of anonymous letters rather than private, frank conversations with line managers. Would your organisation’s culture support a whistleblower? And if not, what steps do you need to take to create the right culture to enable this transparency? Be sure to act now, rather than wait for that first anonymous letter to appear on your desk.
Dorothy McKinney is a practitioner at CMP Solutions