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Nobody likes a tell-tale. Or at least, that’s the received wisdom when you’re growing up – don’t go running to teachers or parents, deal with your own problems… But what if you’re a “grown-up” and you find your employer is up to no good? What’s an employee to do? After all, some issues should be brought into the light and subjected to public scrutiny, no? That’s where whistleblowing comes in.

What is whistleblowing?

In a sense, the high-profile international whistleblowing cases of the last few years can be a little off-putting: Julian Assange and WikiLeaks; Edward Snowden and the CIA… Hoisted onto a pedestal as heroes by some, pilloried as traitors and dissidents by others – no one can say that it’s been an easy ride for them.

But on a more prosaic workplace level, a “whistleblower” is simply, “A person who informs on a person or organisation regarded as engaging in an unlawful or immoral activity.” (Oxford English Dictionary) Usually, it’s an employee who finds their organisation is doing something it shouldn’t.

A recent example

Construction firm Balfour Beatty was contracted for a building project in Cardiff. An employee of BB found that when time came for payment, subcontractor costs had been deliberately hidden in order to boost the company’s profit margin. An employee, Nigel McArthur, brought the issue to the attention of his manager but was told, “that he should not have investigated the costs or alternatively that he should not be concerned about it.” Subsequent bullying led to McArthur leaving BB’s employ and a tribunal case for unfair dismissal. Balfour Beatty admitted liability two weeks before the hearing, settling on a £137,000 payout and admitting that it had, “failed to properly support our employee following concerns they raised.”

Don’t end up in Balfour Beatty’s position

As an employer, you don’t want to end up like Balfour Beatty, so how can you tread a wiser path? Well, this is precisely the reason that whistleblowing policies are a recommended part of the HR package these days – to ensure that such information ends up in the right hands, and that it’s actioned appropriately, and that employees aren’t stigmatised or otherwise punished for being what is essentially just a good citizen.

To help, the CIPD has some very clear guidelines and factsheets on the topic. They recommend that a good whistleblowing policy lay out the following:

  • Clarity on what to do if an employee comes across malpractice in the workplace (and encouragement not to ignore it or cover it up).
  • Who to inform (usually the line manager).
  • A degree of confidentiality, to protect the whistleblower.
  • A promise that appropriate action will be taken.
  • A promise that ‘blowing the whistle’ will not be to the employee’s detriment.

Whistleblowing is just an aspect of compliance with the law and good business practice – something that any business should endorse. However, on the other side of the scales, bear in mind that whistleblowing is never fun for the whistleblower. After all, they’ve found themselves in a very awkward spot and having a simple policy in place telling them what to do and who to tell could make a huge difference in the management of the situation.

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