WHAT IS WHISTLEBLOWING?
Someone blows the whistle when they tell their employer, a regulator, customers, the police or the media about wrongdoing, risk or malpractice that they are aware of through their work.
WHY SHOULD I BLOW THE WHISTLE?
Whistleblowing can inform those who need to know about health and safety risks, potential environmental problems, fraud, corruption, deficiencies in the care of vulnerable people, cover-ups and many other problems. Often it is only through whistleblowing that this information comes to light and can be addressed before real damage is done.
Whistleblowing is a valuable activity which can positively influence all of our lives.
WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN MAKING A COMPLAINT AND BLOWING THE WHISTLE?
When someone blows the whistle they are raising a concern about danger or illegality that affects others (e.g. customers, members of the public, or their employer). The person blowing the whistle is usually not directly, personally affected by the danger or illegality. Consequently, the whistleblower rarely has a personal interest in the outcome of any investigation into their concern - they are simply trying to alert others. For this reason, the whistleblower should not be expected to prove the malpractice. He or she is a messenger raising a concern so that others can address it.
This is very different from a complaint. When someone complains, they are saying that they have personally been poorly treated. This poor treatment could involve a breach of their individual employment rights or bullying and the complainant is seeking redress or justice for themselves. The person making the complaint therefore has a vested interest in the outcome of the complaint and, for this reason, is expected to be able to prove their case.
For these reasons, it is not in anyone's interests if an organisation's whistleblowing policy is used to pursue a personal grievance. Most organisations have a grievance or complaints procedure and this will be more appropriate for making a complaint.
ISN'T A WHISTLEBLOWER A SNITCH / GRASS / TATTLE-TALE / RAT / CLYPE?
No. Whistleblowers provide an early warning system that can alert their colleagues, employers or the public to danger or illegality before it is too late. They can be among the most loyal and public-spirited employees. Unfortunately, there are still some people who believe that “whistleblower” is a dirty word and don't realise how whistleblowing can save lives, jobs, money and reputations. Thankfully, more and more people are beginning to realise how invaluable responsible whistleblowing can be.
If you are unsure whether blowing the whistle is doing the right thing, you may want to ask yourself these questions:
- If my baby was going into hospital for an operation, would I want a nurse to tell someone if they thought the surgeon was incompetent and dangerous?
- If I was that nurse, should I tell my managers that I thought this surgeon was not up to the job and might be harming patients? Wouldn't this normally be a quicker and better way to address the actual problem than going to a regulator or the media?
- If I was a manager at this hospital, would I want someone to tell me about this surgeon before more patients were harmed and the hospital's reputation was damaged?
HOW DO I BLOW THE WHISTLE?
The best thing you can do is to seek independent advice from an experienced organisation before blowing the whistle. If you are in the UK, Public Concern at Work's free, confidential Advice Line can advise you on how to safely and effectively raise a concern. Our Advice Line can be contacted on 020 7404 6609 or by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org If you live in another country, we suggest you contact your trade union, a lawyer or, if there is one in your country, an organisation that specialises in advising whistleblowers. Contact details for other whistleblower organisations can be found by clicking here.
While every situation is different, and so it is sensible to seek advice before blowing the whistle, there are some general points to keep in mind when raising a concern.
- Stay calm.
- Remember that you are a witness, and not a complainant (see Question 2 above).
- Think about the risks and outcomes before you act.
- Let the facts speak for themselves - don't make ill-considered allegations.
- Remember that you may be mistaken or that there may be an innocent or good explanation.
- Do not become a private detective.
- Recognise that you may not be thanked.
HOW CAN PUBLIC CONCERN AT WORK HELP ME BLOW THE WHISTLE?
Public Concern at Work's Advice Line can provide you with free, confidential and practical advice if you are unsure of whether or how to raise a concern about danger or illegality that you have witnessed at work. If you are in this position, we aim to help you identify how best you can raise the concern while minimising any risk to you and maximising the opportunity for any wrongdoing to be addressed. We do not investigate cases.
We can also provide you with general information about the Public Interest Disclosure Act(the UK's whistleblower law). However, we do not have the expertise to provide employment law advice (e.g. on terms and conditions of employment) or to represent anyone. If you are looking for help in taking a claim, we will tell you how to find a lawyer or adviser. However, it is not our policy to recommend individual lawyers or law firms.
Our Advice Line can be contacted on 020 7404 6609 or email@example.com Click here for information on our Advice Line.
WILL PUBLIC CONCERN AT WORK TELL MY EMPLOYER ABOUT MY CONCERN OR REVEAL MY IDENTITY TO MY EMPLOYER WITHOUT MY CONSENT?
As a registered legal advice centre, advice given by Public Concern at Work is covered by legal professional privilege. This strict duty of confidentiality means that we can not - save in exceptional cases set out in law - disclose the identity of a client to their employer or anyone else without the consent of the client.
SHOULD I BLOW THE WHISTLE ANONYMOUSLY?
For advice on how best to raise your concern, you should contact our Advice Line on 020 7404 6609 or firstname.lastname@example.org
There are additional risks when workers raise their concerns anonymously. These are:
being anonymous does not stop others from successfully guessing who raised the concern;
it is harder to investigate the concern if people can not ask follow-up questions;
it is easier to get protection under the UK Public Interest Disclosure Act if the concerns are raised openly; and
it can lead people to focus on the whistleblower, maybe suspecting that he or she is raising the concern maliciously.
WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN ANONYMITY AND CONFIDENTIALITY?
A worker raises a concern confidentially if he or she gives his or her name only on condition that it is not revealed without their consent. A worker raises a concern anonymously if he or she does not give his or her name. Usually, the best way to raise a concern is to do so openly.
DOES THE PUBLIC INTEREST DISCLOSURE ACT REQUIRE AN EMPLOYER TO KEEP A WHISTLEBLOWER'S IDENTITY SECRET?
The simple answer is no - PIDA contains no specific provision on confidentiality. In fact it encourages workers to raise their concern openly. A good whistleblowing policy will provide a confidential port of call for a worried employee and employers should respect any promise of confidentiality they make. However in some cases it will be impossible to take action on the concern without the open testimony of a whistleblower.
If you are worried about raising your concern openly, please contact us on 020 7404 6609 or email@example.com for advice on the best way of raising your concern.
DON'T ALL WHISTLEBLOWERS GET FIRED?
Not at all. Most cases of successful whistleblowing go unreported - so the popular perception that often the messenger is shot is not challenged. Many people blow the whistle without thinking of themselves as whistleblowers and their concerns are properly addressed. These people feel that they are just doing their job or being good workers when they warn others that something is going wrong. When their employer recognises the value of the information they are being given and takes action to deal with the concern, often it does not occur to the people involved that this is a case of whistleblowing.
For examples of successful whistleblowing cases dealt with by our Advice Line, please click here
DO WHISTLEBLOWERS HAVE LEGAL PROTECTION?
Almost all workers (save the armed forces, intelligence officers, volunteers and the self-employed) in the United Kingdom are protected by the Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998 (PIDA). PIDA provides workers in the UK with a safe alternative to silence. It enables workers to raise concerns about wrongdoing responsibly. PIDA protects them if they raise a concern about wrongdoing internally and, in most cases, with a regulator. It also protects workers who make wider disclosures where there is a valid reason to go wider, and the particular disclosure is reasonable.
The purpose of PIDA's protection is that a concern is raised so that it can be addressed, and any wrongdoing corrected. If the sole or main reason a worker blows the whistle is to pursue a personal vendetta (or has some other ulterior motive) then this protection may well be lost.
For information on PIDA, including a copy of the Act, click here.
Other countries have whistleblower protection laws, including the United States of America, South Africa and Australia. For links to organisations in these countries that help whistleblowers, click here.
WILL I BE LEGALLY LIABLE IF I DO NOT BLOW THE WHISTLE?
There are some circumstances in the UK where people are under a legal obligation to raise a concern. Our Advice Line can help if this relates to you.
DOES THE PUBLIC INTEREST DISCLOSURE ACT SAY THAT A WORKER MUST RAISE A CONCERN ABOUT POSSIBLE WRONGDOING WITH THEIR EMPLOYER IN THE FIRST INSTANCE?
PIDA does not require a worker to raise a concern about wrongdoing with their employer before they speak to anyone else. Rather, PIDA encourages workers to approach their employer first by:
making this the easiest way to obtain legal protection; and
making it more likely that a subsequent disclosure of the same information to an outside body will be protected.
However, it is not mandatory to go to your employer first. As there can be legitimate reasons why a worker in a particular organisation would need or want to raise their concern first outside their workplace (either before or after going to their employer), PIDA protects such disclosures providing the worker acts in the responsible ways set out in the Act.
This approach of PIDA promotes accountability and good internal governance by:
encouraging employers to solicit and be open to whistleblowing concerns;
reassuring employees there is a safe alternative to silence; and
helping employers to address any wrongdoing properly, in the knowledge that if they do not the concern can readily be raised outside in an appropriate way.
If you are considering whether or how to raise a concern about potential wrongdoing and would like advice on the best way to go forward, then please contact our Advice Line on 020 7404 6609.
If you would like further information on PIDA, please click here.
DOES A GAGGING CLAUSE PREVENT ME FROM BLOWING THE WHISTLE?
In the UK, gagging clauses in employment contracts and severance agreements are void insofar as they conflict with PIDA protection. PIDA protection can also apply in many cases where the worker is covered by the Official Secrets Act. If in doubt, contact our Advice Line.
If you are in another country, we suggest that you ask a lawyer or an organisation that advises whistleblowers how a gagging clause may affect your ability to make a disclosure.
DOES THE PUBLIC INTEREST DISCLOSURE ACT REQUIRE AN EMPLOYER TO HAVE A WHISTLEBLOWING POLICY?
PIDA does not require an employer to have a whistleblowing policy but please note that organisations in certain sectors may, under other obligations, be required to have a whistleblowing policy. However, PIDA does encourage employers to have such a policy. In the absence of an effective policy, workers may have reason to fear reprisal and may not know the employer will deal with the matter properly – two triggers for protection for wider disclosures. Additionally, whether an employer has an effective whistleblowing policy is one of several factors that an Employment Tribunal will consider when deciding if a wider disclosure (e.g. to the media, the police or an MP) is reasonable and so protected by the Act.
I DO NOT LIVE IN THE UNITED KINGDOM. WHERE CAN I GET ADVICE AND INFORMATION ON WHISTLEBLOWING?
There are several organisations around the world that provide advice and information on whistleblowing. Links to these organisations can be found by clicking here. When contacting these organisations, you should find out what they do and whether they can help you. Please note that Public Concern at Work can take no responsibility for the content of external sites.