Blowing the whistle

A recent survey of 2,000 employees conducted by YouGov on behalf of the British Software Alliance (BSA), an anti-software piracy group, found nearly a third (32%) of employees are more likely to take action on discovering inappropriate or illegal activity at work compared with three years ago.

An impressive 87% say they would report bullying and harassment, while 76% would report theft, and 72% would go to bosses with concerns about health and safety breaches.

This trend is confirmed by Guy Dehn, director at Public Concern at Work, an independent charity that promotes compliance with the law and good practice in this area.

Dehn says the shift in culture has been brought about through a bedding in of the Public Interest Disclosure Act 1999, which protects whistleblowers from victimisation or dismissal. The recommendations of the Committee for Standards in Public Life and provisions made within the combined code on corporate governance have also had a positive effect.

“Many organisations are now making it easier for staff to raise concerns,” he says.

Dehn says best practice in this area is to have a simple policy that is supported from the top of the organisation and is clearly promoted to employees.

Best practice

One such company doing this is Continua, a Luton-based print maintenance business. HR executive Helen Sampson says the firm informs all employees at induction of the need to report potential safety breaches or incidents of misconduct, and makes it clear there is a standard procedure for doing so.

“They know they can go to their line manager or HR with any issues,” she says.

Staff are also told if the issue isn’t properly dealt with, they have the right to go to the appropriate regulator, such as the Health and Safety Executive or Inland Revenue.

“But obviously, it is in our interest to deal with any issues in-house, because once things go outside the company, there’s a chance the problem will escalate,” says Sampson. In fact, the BSA research found almost two-thirds (64%) of employees would be prepared to take their concerns outside their organisation if a particular problem persisted.

But, says John Sturzaker, a partner at law firm Russell, Jones & Walker, it is not simply enough to have a whistleblowing policy in place. There must also be a real commitment to support the whistleblower and eradicate the issues complained of.

He says many organisations may on the surface seem to have a perfect whistleblowing policy that exhorts people to report misconduct, but in reality, none of these procedures are followed, and are undermined by a culture that considers staff members who report their colleagues as ‘snitches or grasses’.

Sturzaker has represented numerous employees at tribunal who felt they had been victimised or dismissed because they had reported malpractice or illegal behaviour to their bosses.

His most publicised case was that of Carol Lingard, a senior prison officer at Wakefield prison who last year was awarded a record 477,000 because she was forced out of her job after she had reported fellow staff members for bullying inmates.

Sturzaker says Lingard was offered no support by the Prison Service, when all she had done was report serious wrongdoing with integrity and strictly in line with procedure. Without even interviewing Lingard, the prison concluded there was nothing in her allegations.

The tribunal found that the prison governor was “dripping with hostility” towards Lingard, and that his claim to be unaware of victimisation towards prison whistleblowers was “simply not credible”.

Public Interest Disclosure Act

Lingard was awarded compensation under the Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998 (PIDA), legislation which offers a framework of protection against victimisation or dismissal for workers who blow the whistle in good faith on criminal behaviour or other wrongdoing.

PIDA came about following a number of scandals and disasters in the early 1990s, such as the Clapham rail disaster and the Zeebrugge ferry tragedy. Almost every public inquiry found that workers had been aware of the dangers but were either too scared to sound the alarm or had raised the matter in the wrong way or with the wrong person.

There is no qualifying period for protection for workers making a disclosure, and no upper limit of the level of compensation that can be awarded.

Alongside full-time employees, contractors, agency workers, home workers and trainees are all included in the Act.

At offshore oil drilling company Fluoris, many of the oil rig workers are on short-term contracts and have traditionally been reluctant to report health and safety issues, according to HR manager Ann Clark.

“There used to be this perception that your contract might not be renewed if you spoke out or rocked the boat,” she says.

Today, all contract staff are instructed to inform HR if there are any issues, and offered assurances their report will be treated in good faith. Safety managers are also proactive in this area, asking staff if they have anything they would like to report.

Clark says this new culture of openness has been driven by a realisation that this is a more professional way of working, rather than by the introduction of the PIDA legislation.

Safeguarding the whistleblowers

The evidence is that Fluoris is not alone in trying to do the right thing, with almost half (46%) of respondents to the BSA survey saying their company is more concerned with good business practices compared with three years ago.

Nevertheless, says Mike Emmott, employee relations adviser at the CIPD, many companies have so far failed to put safeguards in place for whistleblowers.

Despite often showing great courage and determination, whistleblowers are not necessarily popular with their colleagues, particularly where the disclosure threatens people’s jobs.

“HR managers have a duty to support whistleblowers that act in good faith and it is in the long-term interests of the organisation that they should do so,” he says.

No more so than for the sake of the reputation of the company, says Adrian*, a former design engineer who agreed to talk to Employers’ Law anonymously for this article. He recently won damages from a former employer who forced him out of his work after he reported a senior manager for bullying. Adrian says he had no option than to go to tribunal, a process he describes as an “arguing competition run by lawyers.”

“Now when you type my former company’s name into Google, all you get are hundreds of references to my case,” he says. “That must be damaging to their reputation, and I’m sure they will have to re-brand at some point.”

* not his real name

Whistle while you work
Public Concern at Work

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