Blowing the whistle is a frightening thought. The evidence shows that blowing the whistle might not result in the issue you were trying to expose being dealt with, and might lead to you being bullied, counter-accused, sacked, and shunned by your co-workers.
- 25% of whistleblowers experience reprisals from managers or colleagues.
- The number of employees claiming to have been sacked, mistreated or bullied as a result of whistle-blowing has risen from 157 cases in 1999 to 1,791 in 2009.
- £1.25 million of taxpayer’s money was paid out in compensation in 2009/10 after employment tribunals found that NHS staff had been mistreated after whistle-blowing. Many cases were settled out of court so the actual figure will be much higher.
- Only 36% of UK Civil Servants believe an issue would be addressed if they raised a concern under the Civil Service Code. (A high proportion of leaks by Civil Servants happen because they feel that information is being ignored or suppressed in policy debate).
Why are whistle-blowers sometimes treated badly?
One reason is that corporate culture does not normally value whistle-blowing. There may be whistle-blowing policies, but in reality the focus of the board, whether private or public sector, is on short-term financial results and performance targets. The people working within these cultures are therefore much less likely to raise the alarm, and much less likely to be treated with respect if they do. The Mid-Staffs and Winterbourne Inquires will highlight this again.
Also, wrong-doers do not want to be exposed and so, enabled by inadequate whistleblowing processes, they will strive to turn the accusations back on the accuser. Sibel Edmonds vs FBI is a good example of this, as are the prosecutions of Kostas Vaxevanis for publishing the ‘Largarde List’ naming over 2,000 Greek tax cheats. And of course Guardian Newspaper’s Person of the Year 2012, Bradley Manning.
And because most organisations are male dominated, women can find it particularly difficult to raise the alarm, often finding the wrongdoer (if male) has a network ready to back him up and support the counter-accusations, enabled by the cultural bias towards the male.
What is being done to improve the situation?
Within the National Health Service, the NHS Constitution was changed to:
- Put an onus on staff to report wrong-doing… but this suggests the problem is caused by the irresponsibility of staff in the same way that it is apparently the coldness of nurses which is leading to failures in care.
- Include a pledge that management will investigate concerns and ensure there is an independent body for staff to speak to… but what ‘investigate’ means is not specified. And the Care Quality Commission has failed to act in many cases and routinely relies on evidence provided by the employer rather than the staff member.
But maybe there is more hope with the new ‘duty of candour’ which will place a contractual obligation on all NHS bodies, including private providers to the NHS, to tell patients if their safety has been compromised? The duty is designed to encourage a more open culture, but it won’t create a fully open culture. The duty has been watered down from the original Lib Dem manifesto promise to put a legal duty in place. The need for a full legal duty is put forward on the Robbie’s Law campaign site.
Where can potential whistle-blowers go for support?
- The Public Interest Disclosure Act provides whistle-blowers some protection under the law – but only 23% of people know this. Public Concern at Work is a dedicated whistle-blowing charity and can provide advice to individuals.
- There are many organisations providing sector specific support, such as Patients First for the NHS. The General Medical Council also provide support to this sector.
- UK Civil Servants are obliged to raise concerns through the Civil Service Commissioner. However, these arrangements are unsatisfactory for a number of reasons, as discussed here.
Comments very welcome.