What is whistleblowing?
‘Whistleblowing’ is when a worker provides certain types of information which has come to their attention, usually to the employer or a regulator, to raise a concern about danger or illegality that affects others. The disclosure may be about the alleged wrongful conduct of the employer, a colleague, client, or any third party. Typically, the whistleblower is not directly, personally affected by the danger or illegality, although they may be.
The disclosure must be made in the public interest rather than for personal gain. Complaints can be made to a collection of different people, meaning you are able to make your disclosure to someone you feel comfortable talking to. People should not be victimised for blowing the whistle and will therefore receive whistleblower protection throughout the process. Whistleblowing is an important practice as it ensures companies operate fairly and within the limits of the law.
What counts as whistleblowing?
The following complaints count as whistleblowing:
- Criminal offences
- Dangers to an individual’s health and safety
- Risk or damage to the environment
- Miscarriage of justice
- The company breaking the law, including contractual obligations and health and safety regulations
- You believe that someone is covering up wrongdoing (whilst evidence can help the investigation but is not necessary)
So for example, if someone reported financial abuse of care home residents this would classify as whistleblowing. However, if someone reported personal discrimination their complaint would not count as whistleblowing. A person is under no obligation to investigate the information before reporting it – in fact, this could be detrimental through inadvertently “tipping off’ those involved. Raising a concern in good faith (i.e. based on honest perceptions and without malice) is all that is expected.
Who should the information be reported to?
Employees have a few different options of who to report their concerns to and the nature of the complaint may dictate who they feel most comfortable making the disclosure to. Organisations might have a whistleblowing policy that outlines who they should contact, often containing a list of external whistleblowing hotlines. However, if they do not have a policy or if the person does not feel comfortable contacting the person (e.g. if they were implicated) then they have a number of other options. These include:
- Their manager
- Another manager within their organisation
- Their organisation’s legal and compliance team
- Their HR department
- Seeking legal advice from a lawyer
- An industry body such as a trade union or association
- An external helpline such as Acas
What’s to be expected next?
Whoever the concerns are reported to should listen to the employee’s worries and ask further questions if necessary. It is important that the employee immediately informs them if they do not wish your name and contact details to be recorded. However, you are within your rights to refuse to any of these activities. You may be required to attend further meetings or be contacted by phone to obtain more information. The process is now out of your hands and the investigator will decide whether to pursue matters further. Whilst you will now be removed from the investigation, you can request to be kept up-to-date with its progress.
Am I Protected?
You are protected by law, when whistleblowing, if you are:
- An employee or former employee
- A trainee, e.g. a student nurse
- An agency worker
- A member of a Limited Liability Partnership (LLP)
The Citizens Advice Bureau can offer advice if you do not fall into any of the aforementioned categories. If you are concerned about the level of protection you will receive, you can make the report anonymously. However, this may hinder the investigation as the investigators will not be able to contact you for further information. Additionally, you will not receive updates on the progress of the investigation when reporting anonymously.
Whistleblowing in Action
One of the greatest whistleblowing scandals of our time is Olympus’ fraud discovery. Michael Woodford joined the world renowned camera company Olympus in 1980 and spent the next three decades climbing the ranks to CEO. Two weeks into his new role as CEO, Woodford discovered and blew the whistle on £1 billion of fraud. When he brought his discoveries to the board he was immediately dismissed. He then took to the world news and media to get his story heard. Whilst Woodford suffered mistreatment as the direct consequence of whistleblowing, it was not in vain. Woodford succeeded, he uncovered and publicised £1 billion of fraud, received £20 million settlement and got three former executives charged with fraud cover-up.
Why is Whistleblowing Important?
Whilst whistleblowing can be a daunting thought, it is coupled with numerous benefits. The practice of whistleblowing helps to improve your working conditions, especially regarding health and safety. It also helps to uphold the organisation’s Code of Conduct and protects its reputation. Similarly, reporting protects both clients and stakeholders, which is in the public’s best interest. By the nature of whistleblowing, you are acting in the public’s best interest. Whistleblowing training can help arm you with the knowledge and skills needed to make a proper complaint and ensure your voice is heard.