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Separating the Whistleblower from Whistleblowing in the U.K.

On December 7, 2022, NAVEX hosted a Whistleblowing in the U.K. event at the Royal Institute of British Architects in London. Our guest speakers for the session were MP Mary Robinson, who has been pivotal in driving the new U.K. Whistleblowing Bill currently being debated in Parliament, and Whistleblowers U.K. CEO Georgina Halford-Hall. Jan Stappers, whistleblowing expert at NAVEX, joined Georgina and Mary on stage. This article summarizes some of the discussions covered during the session.

Whistleblowing is increasingly important for corporate transparency and accountability. Even so, the whistleblower is often viewed with suspicion. Whistleblowers are vulnerable to reprisals, victimization and stigma which often outlives the resolution of the issue raised.

To move out of this rut, Mary Robinson, MP Cheadle, stated that we must separate the act of whistleblowing from the whistleblower and dissolve the cultural stigma attached to the reporter.

The U.K. Whistleblowing Bill – also known as the “10-minute rule bill” – aims to do this by championing whistleblowing as a tool for business improvement and safeguarding. With minimum standards for what “whistleblowing” and “a whistleblower” mean and a dedicated office for support and advice, the bill offers a framework for taking a step back from the “who” and instead focusing on the “what” involved.

So, what does the bill cover?

The goals of the new bill depart from older legislation, the Public Disclosure Act of 1998 (PIDA). A benchmark both in the U.K. and internationally, the PIDA focuses on protecting the rights of whistleblowers in the workplace but does not legally define the whistleblower or comprehensively protect them from other forms of retaliation. In developments outside the U.K., the EU’s Whistleblower Protection Directive also makes some changes and improvements to the PIDA, but the U.K. Whistleblowing Bill’s goal is to take this even further, according to Robinson.

Firstly, the bill builds on the standards set by the PIDA by providing stronger legal protection against victimization and dismissal. Secondly, it improves access to justice services and greater financial and communal support, proposing whistleblowers receive independent advice and backing via a newly established “Office of the Whistleblower” throughout the reporting process. Finally, it sets out a framework of necessary protections for employees and incentives for businesses to support a speak-up culture.

A driving force of the bill is changing the perspective of whistleblowing itself. Engaged employees, according to Hall, are alert and invested in making positive changes in their workplace. But unless the label of “whistleblower” stops being stigmatized, it will act as a deterrent – and the historical trend of behaviors towards whistleblowers will make anyone reluctant to speak out.

Research on the treatment of whistleblowers post-disclosure paints a stark picture.

The 2020 All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) report found that 85% of whistleblowers suffered from anxiety, depression and PTSD. Research from Queen’s University Belfast found 67% of whistleblowers experienced a drop in income post-disclosure. The APPG’s summary of the situation refers to the trend of whistleblowers “subjected to life-changing harm” following disclosures. Worker awareness of rights and how their employer should behave is also poor, with a 2021 YouGov survey finding only 43% of respondents knew their employer had a whistleblowing policy.

Another key issue identified since implementing the PIDA legislation is the nature of employment tribunals and their historically poor outcomes for whistleblowers. Many people end up fighting for their employment instead of the issue they reported. What should be viewed as a service to an organization often becomes a personal confrontation, which takes a huge mental and emotional toll on the reporter. The 2020 APPG report found only 4% of whistleblowing cases brought to a tribunal against alleged retaliatory employers were successful. This lack of success for whistleblowers highlights the need for more robust legislation and better processes around what happens (and what shouldn’t happen) after a disclosure. Robinson and Hall describe the U.K. Bill as a step towards whistleblowing becoming a regular part of managing business risk, and not a life-altering event for the whistleblower.

A final driving force behind the bill is the very real danger to life when risks remain unaddressed. Hall noted particular crises in recent years around the U.K.’s maternity care and standards, whereby the CQC (Care Quality Commission) revealed a severe lapse in quality of care in one of the biggest scandals in NHS history. Just one example of this is the case of Basildon University Hospital; while a whistleblower eventually raised concerns at CQC level, there should have been steps in place to identify these issues with management before they escalated to the level of lives being lost. Such crises stem from unreported, unresolved risks and serve as an unfortunate reality of what happens when whistleblowers aren’t empowered to speak freely and without retribution. Both financially and ethically, something must change.

While the U.K. Whistleblowing Bill will provide what Robinson described as “a framework to hang change on”, organizations must still take responsibility for facilitating a healthy speak-up culture. For those looking to invest in whistleblowing infrastructure, Robinson and Hall’s advice is to focus on changing attitudes and unifying organizational values across HR, whistleblowing, health and safety. This could include allocating resources to listen, improve processes, have open dialogue, and engage with whistleblowers.

To highlight the value of whistleblowing, organizations must also ensure the right information is being circulated throughout the company from the top. A common obstacle to achieving cultural change is reluctance on the part of some senior leadership teams to view whistleblower reports as good for business. In these cases, Hall advised “speaking on their terms”, because nobody speaking up is not a landmark success for any organization. Leadership should be encouraged to view reports in light of identifying risks early, preventing reputational damage, and improving employee trust.

Despite the historical board culture’s deep discomfort with the concept of whistleblowing, no reports do not mean there are no business problems, and there are likely issues employees do not feel safe to talk about. Furthermore, whether organizations want to change or not, workers will choose employers that can meet their ethical expectations. Transparency is becoming an attribute that employees actively seek out when they look for work. Organizations with leadership teams slow to transition will find themselves losing out on top talent.

Conclusion

In its 2019 report, the APPG for Whistleblowing concluded that whistleblowing “can help prevent harm to the fundamental values of society, including individual rights and liberties, justice, health, economic prosperity and stability, and can help build a culture of integrity and accountability in business and public institutions.”

The ideal scenario? Wrongdoing exposed, problems addressed and fixed, and whistleblowing simply being a part of business as usual. The only way to eliminate the stigma of the whistleblower is for anyone to feel safe and able to raise a concern – without feeling like they must weigh up the personal and professional cost of reporting versus the risks and ethics of not.

To learn more about how NAVEX can help improve your culture of compliance through industry-leading whistleblowing and incident management:

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