Whistleblowing – it’s not always Pandora’s Box

By Anita Jaynes on 15 March, 2022

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Peter Woodhouse, Head of Business Sector and Employment Team at Bath-headquartered law firm Stone King, looks at how businesses that fear the ‘w’ word could, perhaps, change their perspective.

Whistleblowing is a loaded word, and how an employer deals with whistleblowing (or, in legal speak, someone making a “protected disclosure”) can tell you a lot about the ethos of that organisation.

To be protected, a disclosure must be in the public interest. Whistleblowing also no longer needs to be “in good faith”. So even if the complaint looks designed simply to cause trouble, it should not be ignored. The complainant must have reasonable grounds for their belief in the complaint, but that is not a high hurdle.

Some organisations fear whistleblowing. They may fear the opening of the mythical Pandora’s Box.  It’s true that whistleblowing may cause reputational damage that can legitimately be of great concern. But, many employers fear them because they don’t understand how to deal with them, or how to turn them to the organisation’s advantage.

Some start an “investigation” into a whistleblowing complaint assuming the complaint is wrong, perhaps appointing the very people alleged of wrongdoing to investigate the claim. Others enter into a high-risk strategy of inaction on the basis that the complaint is not technically whistleblowing.

So, how and why can a different approach help?

CEOs and senior management teams, particularly at larger firms, may not have complete oversight of their business. A whistleblowing complaint could be the only way they become aware of wrongdoing within their organisation.

Likewise, employees don’t necessarily have a full picture of how their CEO and senior managers operate, so businesses should value individuals sharing information about wrongdoing. Why not promote open communication channels and identify and resolve potential issues before they develop?

Every organisation should have a whistleblowing policy in place, making it clear how someone can raise a complaint. It could include a dedicated email address for complaints.  The policy should set out the process once it is received; outline how the outcome of investigations will be shared; and what happens if the whistleblower is not satisfied with it. It also needs to outline support available for a whistleblower.

Employment tribunal claims are based on being treated badly as a result of blowing the whistle. So, having a clear procedure with a line to senior staff members goes some way to showing that a business takes complaints seriously and will not penalise people who make them.

In summary:

  1. Whistleblowing can be an opportunity to fix something that is wrong;
  2. It may provide an opportunity to show that nothing is wrong;
  3. Making it easier for someone to blow the whistle may be an organisation’s best approach.

Everyone gets something wrong sometimes. In this context, if an organisation approaches mistakes as an opportunity to improve, the likelihood of a successful tribunal claim is reduced. If they close ranks against whistleblowers and treat complaints as a threat to defend, the opposite is true.

To connect with Peter email: peterwoodhouse@stoneking.co.uk and visit Stone King online at: www.stoneking.co.uk