Whistleblowing: When silence isn't always golden

By Genevieve Bach, Public Affairs Manager, @gen_bach


Today (Wednesday 25 June) saw the Government publish its response to the Whistleblowing Commission set up by Public Concern at Work.  CIPD responded to the call for evidence and recently held a roundtable with a number of our members, to explore what makes a whistleblowing policy effective in practice and what extra steps government and employers can take to make sure policies work for all concerned.


A large part of the discussion focused on the role of HR in the whistleblowing process – unsurprising, really.  HR professionals, processes and strategies will influence (some would say decide) whether an employee raises a particular concern, how that concern is addressed and ultimately, how it is resolved.  It’s up to senior leaders, including HR teams where relevant, to ensure an organisational culture where employees feel comfortable raising concerns and that where they do, those concerns are dealt with in an appropriate manner.


This is sometimes easier said than done.  It is not always clear to employers how they should act when concerns are raised by one or more employees.  At the very outset, there is the possibility that the employee is speaking out not in “good faith” but from a personal agenda (including personal grievance, the prospect of financial gain, or performance management), and it can be particularly difficult to separate these two things when there is no common consensus as to what distinguishes “public” interest from personal.  Of course, motive is irrelevant when genuine wrongdoing is being flagged – but the possibility for personal bugbears to be disguised as organisational misdemeanours can make life unnecessarily difficult for employers (and, sometimes, other colleagues) and detract time and attention away from other important issues.


Further down the line, how an employer proceeds to address a whistleblower’s complaint is not always straightforward.  Issues around confidentiality and anonymity can cause confusion for both sides – should a whistleblower remain anonymous, in addition to their conversations with their employer being confidential?  Employees who “blow the whistle” often demand anonymity when this might not be the most appropriate decision – in certain situations it can be harder for justice to be achieved for an individual if they opt for anonymity as well as confidentiality, instead of simply going for the latter.  The two things can often be conflated as well, which can lead to misunderstandings (and, on occasion, anger) on the employee side when an employer acts in a way different to what was expected – for example, escalating a concern and identifying the employee against their wishes, as an employer may sometimes have to.


This points to the absolute necessity of good, clear communications between employer and employee during the whistleblowing process.  Employees need to know how their concern is going to be dealt with, and kept informed as things progress – to manage expectations and foster a relationship of openness and trust between employer and employee. 


The latter will be just as important in encouraging employees to come forward when they witness something that needs to be addressed.  “Whistleblowing” still carries some negative connotations, particularly for many employees, who feel that they may suffer at the hands of their employer (or even their colleagues) if they flag up information that may damage the organisation.  This is an important challenge for HR and senior leaders – “creating the right culture” is an obvious answer, but what does this mean in practical terms?  If nobody is raising concerns, is this an encouraging sign that all is well within the organisation, or a more worrying indication that employees don’t feel they can speak up, or that the right processes aren’t in place for them to do so?  Employers currently deal with this in a range of ways, from obligating employees under their Code of Conduct to flag up when they see wrongdoing, to doing away with the term “whistleblowing” altogether and subsuming the topic within an “Ethics Code”.


The Government’s upcoming guidance for employers and information for employees will no doubt bring some much-needed clarity and support to a currently quite difficult and emotive area.  CIPD will look to work with government to ensure these documents reflect good practice, drawing where possible on the experience of our members on the ground.  We’d value your thoughts and opinions as to how whistleblowing policies can be turned into effective practices that work for all concerned.


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