Every employer faces the risk that something will go badly wrong in their organisation and ought to welcome the opportunity to address it as early as possible. The individuals often best placed to speak up about these risks, or ‘blow the whistle’, are usually those who work in the organisation, yet they often have the most to lose if they do. ‘Whistleblowing’ refers to raising concerns about wrongdoing within an organisation. The concern must be a genuine one about a crime, criminal offence, miscarriage of justice, dangers to health and safety or to the environment, or the covering up or attempt to cover up of any of these. It’s not the same as making a complaint which usually relates to one individual personally. Whistleblowers have legal protection in the UK under the Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998.
Whistleblowing arrangements are a vital component of good governance and risk management in any organisation or industry. Effective whistleblowing can ensure that disaster is averted, costly legal claims are avoided and reputation is preserved. Benefits go beyond detecting wrongdoing and include deterring malpractice and improving standards and quality. A responsible approach to whistleblowing also helps an organisation to promote a healthy workplace culture built on openness and accountability.
A Code of Practice (CoP) has been developed by the Whistleblowing Commission. The CoP provides practical guidance to employers, workers and their representatives and sets out recommendations for raising, handling, training and reviewing whistleblowing in the workplace. It can be viewed on Public Concern at Work’s website. They have clearly outlined what they believe constitutes an effective whistleblowing policy.
To be considered effective, a whistleblowing policy should have a clear, well publicised written procedure, along with a clear outline of who informants can report to, including relevant external bodies and key, nominated individuals within the organisation. Staff should routinely be made aware of the policy, and if it is working effectively staff confidence levels in the process should be high. Assurances should be made that no detriment will come to informants who provide information in good faith. Further, informants’ confidentiality should be assured and protected, and procedures and timescales should be made clear from the outset. Companies that have effective whistleblowing policies should make clear efforts to ensure that their procedures are effective by, for instance, carrying out regular audits, keeping adequate records, providing training and giving feedback to informants on the progress of the concerns they have raised.
Public Concern at Work emphasises the importance of confidentiality, rather than anonymity with whistleblowing. When a concern is raised confidentially, the whistleblower gives their identity on the understanding that this information will not be revealed without their consent. An anonymous whistleblower does not give their identity at any point. The advantage of confidential complaints is that the whistleblower can be consulted during the investigation process, and can receive feedback on how the concern was dealt with, and, crucially, that the organisation can protect the whistleblower. Furthermore, having confidential complaints rather than anonymous ones means the business is able to conduct audits on the process and report on its own whistleblowing process.
Ideally, informants should feel able to report concerns openly. Openness makes it easier for the employer to assess the issue, work out how to investigate the matter and obtain more information. A ‘speak up culture’ is most conducive to staff feeling comfortable expressing their concerns and feeling that they are listened to. This requires staff to have confidence that they won’t be penalised or treated badly for raising concerns and that it won’t harm their relationships with their colleagues or managers, or affect their career progression.