Blowing the whistle
Whistleblowing is one of those divisive concepts. After all, Julian Assange and Edward Snowden are two of the most famous whistleblowers of recent times – mention them on Twitter and watch the opposing factions line up…
But in the workplace, a whistleblower is simply an employee who finds out their employer organisation is doing something it shouldn’t, and in the public interest, tells the appropriate person about it. Or, as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it, “A person who informs on a person or organisation regarded as engaging in an unlawful or immoral activity.”
Why whistleblowing is a good thing
As an activity, it’s enshrined in law and employment rights; so, you’d hope that whistleblowing is a good thing. Why might it be beneficial to your organisation?
- It’s the right thing to do – Giving your employees a route to tackling wrongdoing rather than leaving them an unsupported choice between standing up for themselves and others or silent complicity.
- Business reputation and brand – If you think secrets can be kept forever or that your business will never ‘get it wrong’ then fine, ignore this one. But take a more realistic view and accept that nothing is perfect then actively encouraging whistleblowing makes you, the organisation, part of the solution: you’re actively looking to tackle issues and make improvements, which is a good thing to have as part of your reputation.
- Should the ‘whistleblown’ issue come to a tribunal claim, having a specific policy in place and following it can offset part of an employer’s vicarious responsibility for an individual employee’s wrongdoing.
The legal position
We mentioned “enshrined in law”… employees reporting malpractice by an employer or colleague are protected by the Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998. To keep it simple, the bottom line is such reports are classified as ‘protected disclosures’ and to dismiss an employee for making a protected disclosure counts as unfair dismissal.
Issues deemed suitable for disclosure include criminal offences, breaches of legal obligations, miscarriages of justice, health and safety risks, dangers to the environment, and/or the deliberate concealment of any of these above. According to the Act, any qualifying worker has the right to whistleblow. That description includes independent contractors and agency staff engaged by the business.
The value of a whistleblowing policy
Yes, the suggestion of ‘yet another’ HR policy is rarely greeted with applause and cheers, but in this case, it’s definitely merited.
Firstly, bear in mind that the aim of having a whistleblowing policy is not to repress inappropriate or illegal activity or information but to ensure it ends up in the hands of those who need to take action (which means if someone does come to you with this kind of information, you need to take that action!)
Secondly, a policy helps prevent false whistleblowing by putting in place a neutral, objective procedure. False whistleblowing may not be common, and you might wonder why someone would bother. It could personal dissatisfaction with their position or treatment at work; or a targeted attack on an individual within the company; or a distraction (e.g. from their own poor performance).
Apart from anything else, a policy is a way of stating that the organisation will take such issues seriously, and anyone in the position of having to raise an issue will not be treated differently or unfavourably as a result. It’s reassuring.
The CIPD recommends a whistleblowing policy include:
- Clarity on what to do if and when malpractice is discovered.
- Clear procedure on who to inform; possibly a line manager, a third party (outsourced whistleblowing hotline?), or a legal adviser.
- Confidentiality to protect the whistleblower.
- A commitment to take appropriate action.
- Management buy-in – in other words, endorsement from the top down.
For an employer, whistleblowing might just be another element of compliance with employment law (not to mention good business practice) but for the whistleblower, it’s potentially a very big deal, with the accompanying concern that it could completely change their working life (not least in terms of relationships with colleagues and managers). This is why whistleblowing must be dealt with sensitively and neutrally, and consistently.
If you want to explore this or any HR topic further, check out our website or give us a call on 01582 463462. We’re here to help.