Whistleblowing is the term used when a worker calls attention to wrongdoing within an organisation. If a worker exposes any information or activity that is illegal, unethical or incorrect, they are a whistle-blower and should be protected by law, as stipulated in the Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998. In this article, we explain your responsibilities as an employer when it comes to whistleblowing, and why you need a comprehensive whistleblowing policy.
What is whistleblowing?
The law translates the term “whistleblowing” to “making a disclosure in the public interest.” If a worker blows the whistle on something that is in the public interest, that concerns something they believe has shown past, present or future wrongdoing, they will be protected and should not be treated unfairly by their employer. Examples of wrongdoing include:
• Criminal activity, such as fraud
• Health & Safety risks, accidents or malpractice
• Risk or damage to the environment
• Miscarriages of justice
• Your company is breaking the law
• Someone is covering up wrongdoing
How to deal with whistleblowing in your organisation
First and foremost, it is good practice to create a company culture that emboldens workers to speak up about any wrongdoing, without fearing penalisation. Workers are usually the first people to witness any wrongdoing and should, therefore, be encouraged to communicate. You should demonstrate at all levels of your organisation that disclosures are welcome and put in place robust systems to ensure workers feel comfortable and confident to do so.
It is not a legal requirement to have an official whistleblowing policy, but it is certainly best practice, as it demonstrates to workers that you are committed to openness and transparency.
A comprehensive whistleblowing policy will help you to:
• Identify wrongdoing quickly and efficiently
• Enable you to respond and investigate promptly
• Give you better control of information to help you make decisions and control risk
• Create a company culture committed to openness and transparency
• React to wrongdoing by utilising internal systems, rather than requiring a worker to go to a third party
What should your whistleblowing policy cover?
All organisations are different and as such, there is no standard whistleblowing policy you should adopt. You may have a variety of different policies for individual business units, a standalone policy, or a policy built into your code of ethics. There is often confusion as to the type of wrongdoing that should be disclosed so you should clearly outline the type of disclosures that fall under whistleblowing and direct workers to your grievance policy for any other matters. Your whistleblowing policy should also outline in detail the steps a worker should take when making a disclosure for them to remain protected by law.
There are several elements your policy should cover including, and not restricted to:
• The type of disclosures that are classed as whistleblowing
• Your procedures for handling whistleblowing
• The correct procedure a worker should adopt to blow the whistle
• Clarification that contractual ‘gagging clauses’ do not prevent whistleblowing
• The feedback a whistle-blower is likely to receive
• The time frame for dealing with disclosures
• Signposts to information or support networks to those thinking of whistleblowing, such as Acas, Trade Unions, Public Concern at Work or the Government.
The importance of communication
You should communicate your commitment to whistleblowing, and your whistleblowing policy, regularly and through a variety of means. This could be via your company intranet, company newsletter or through team meetings or 1:1s. Keeping workers regularly informed through communication and training will reinforce the importance of openness in your company culture.
If a worker has made a disclosure, you should explain your procedures to deal with it and explain how you intend to keep them informed. Many whistle-blowers will expect to be kept in the loop and your policy should outline the information you intend to share with them following their disclosure. It is best practice for organisations to provide feedback on how their disclosure has been dealt with. Lack of communication can cause resentment or frustration from the whistle-blower and could result in them looking to a third party to take the disclosure further, a scenario you would probably wish to avoid.
It’s vital to be prepared
Whistleblowing should not be a source of fear in your business. By implementing a thorough policy, and instilling a culture of transparency, you will be able to deal with issues quickly and robustly before they turn into even bigger problems. For more information on your responsibilities as an employer, this guide from the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills is particularly helpful.
For further advice on implementing a whistleblowing policy, or if you have a case of whistleblowing with which you require professional support, we’re here to help. Call us for an informal chat on 0330 555 1139 or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.