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Whistleblowing – Raising issues with senior people

The eagerly anticipated Sue Gray report into events at Downing Street has now been published. Due to the Met Police investigating some of the events, Ms Gray was extremely limited in what she could say. However, one striking inclusion of the report was that some staff did not feel they could raise concerns over the events:

‘Some staff wanted to raise concerns about behaviours they witnessed at work but at times felt unable to do so. No member of staff should feel unable to report or challenge poor conduct where they witness it. There should be easier ways for staff to raise such concerns informally, outside of the line management chain’

The troubling thing is that this conclusion sounds familiar. Nigel Boardman concluded that the Greensill lobbying scandal might have been mitigated if there had been a robust and trusted whistleblowing process in his report in July 2021. The Sue Gray update, and the Boardman review before it, paint an alarming picture of dysfunctional whistleblowing or speak up cultures, where Civil Servants either felt unable to raise concerns or did not trust the system.

Raising issues with senior people should be a welcomed procedure; a sign of a healthy organisation is a culture where employees feel empowered and confident enough to raise concerns when they feel that something is wrong. Still, to this day, it is frequent to hear that many employees do not feel comfortable raising such issues due to the fear of detrimental repercussions and even bullying.

Fear amongst staff

Seniority comes with increased responsibility, influence and power. We have all heard a story from a friend or colleague of the time they were too scared to tell their boss something, or perhaps they told a senior member an issue, but nothing was done about it. Most of the time these individuals suffer when their account or opinion conflicts with that of a senior person. This does not mean senior leaders are not sincere in their commitment at the level of principle, but they are happy to protect the institutions’ name, their name and their seniors’ name over the more junior employee. The problem here is that whilst the organisation may benefit financially or operationally from squashing a raised issue, the harm caused to the individual can be severe.

A striking example can be seen when an open letter circulated on Twitter of 61 former workers who alleged that BrewDog’s rapid growth had involved cutting corners on health and safety, espousing values it did not live by and creating a toxic culture that left staff suffering from mental illnesses. As well as those who signed the letter, 45 ex-employees supported the message but refused to share their names for fear of repercussions. Senior leaders within BrewDog clearly knew of the shortcuts they were taking on their path to success, but at what cost? Only now do we understand the conditions that BrewDog was operating, after whistleblowers brought issues into the public eye. The letter read:

‘Put bluntly, the single biggest shared experience of former staff is a residual feeling of fear. Fear to speak out about the atmosphere we were immersed in, and fear of repercussions even after we left.’

In a fully-functioning, successfully operated organisation there can be no fear of speaking out, in fact, it should be encouraged.

Backlash and bullying

Another recent example of whistleblowing that will deter people from doing the same can be seen when Azeem Rafiq spoke out about the racist abuse he received during his time at Yorkshire Cricket Club. Rafiq says the ‘atrocious’ backlash he has faced as a whistleblower for racism in cricket has deterred many other victims of abuse from coming forward.

Many have tried to discredit Rafiq, hoping that if successful his claim would lose credibility and the matter would soon be forgotten about. However, Rafiq stays determined to hold those accountable and see serious systematic change within the sport. The principal issue here is that people are attempting to discredit Rafiq instead of dealing with the serious problem at hand. Why would others speak up about their experiences if they know they will receive a similar backlash?

Are there solutions?

First and foremost, organisations must make sure that they are not encouraging employees to raise issues with senior people as a mere form of tokenism, with nothing actually being done about it. From the outside, everything looks fine, but internally wrongdoings can be rife and speaking out about it changes nothing – this cannot happen. Organisations must encourage their staff to raise issues with senior people but actually address the issue.

If you have an issue, or something is concerning you then your first action should be to speak to your line manager or another manager that you trust for advice. Your line management should be there to listen and engage. Also, there is no requirement to provide any proof to raise a concern, it just has to be reasonable and an honest belief that wrongdoing has occurred or is likely to occur.

If this avenue proves fruitless then Trade Unions are a realistic option. By negotiating with employers on their whistleblowing procedures, unions can protect not only whistleblowers, but their entire membership, and even the employer, in the case that wrongdoing is reported. By standing up for the freedom of expression and becoming trustworthy confidantes for whistleblowers, unions can take an important role in the protection, not only of workers but of human rights and society as a whole.

Whistleblowing laws

The UK’s whistleblowing law is worryingly weak compared to that of many other nations. Employees are legally protected from dismissal and retaliation if they follow their employer’s whistleblowing procedure, but the problem is that employers are not legally obliged to have a whistleblowing procedure.

Furthermore, the laws that are in place are toothless. Organisations may be fined for wrongdoings but for many private sector enterprises, the cost is financially worth the risk. See the aforementioned BrewDog example – how much does employee wellbeing and mental health cost? The staff protection for whistleblowing is just not there. Moreover, organisations are trusted to rectify the wrongdoing that has been reported, but not held to account, so there is nothing to stop organisations from paying their fine and then continuing the malpractices for which they were reported.

The need for legal reform in the UK is clear, it should mandate that every organisation has a legitimate whistleblowing procedure in place. The benefits of a strong whistleblowing culture are well documented – Protect’s report ‘Workplace Whistleblowing: Why we need a legal duty on employers’ outlines for example, how higher rates of occupational fraud are detected by whistleblowers over the internal audit.

This would be a good start, and it would be somewhat measurable. However, facts and figures do not consider fear. Even with whistleblowing laws in place, it will be a long time before many people feel comfortable speaking out or raising issues with senior people out of the fear of repercussions and bullying. Cases like that of Azeem Rafiq will continue to deter others from bravely speaking out. The hysteria surrounding whistleblowing is as much a deep societal issue as it is an organisational issue.

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