Are UK organisations merely paying lip service to whistleblowing?

This year whistleblowing has been the media’s darling, dominating headlines around the world. Secretive governments, irresponsible banks, crooked businesses and unsafe healthcare have come under the spotlight thanks to workers finding the courage to speak up about wrongdoing.

Public inquiries into scandals have recommended better whistleblowing arrangements as a means to combat corruption and abuse. In the UK, the Public Interest Disclosure Act has been reformed, and the government is consulting on how to improve the legislation.

Employers across the board have pledged to support whistleblowers. But has this media attention and political promise served to strengthen the whistleblower’s hand? Or are UK organisations merely paying lip service to whistleblowing?

Public Concern at Work, the UK whistleblowing charity and global professional services organisation, has undertaken a comprehensive nationwide survey of whistleblowing policies. We surveyed organisations from over 30 sectors, including central government, banking, healthcare and construction.

Encouragingly, we found that over 90% of organisations adopt formal whistleblowing policies. Implementation, however, is a different story with one in three respondents believing that their whistleblowing arrangements are not effective. A box-ticking culture seems to be emerging, where ineffective policies which lack necessary support and advice for whistleblowers are being rubber stamped.

Training for staff who handle whistleblowing concerns appears to be woefully inadequate, with 54% of respondents saying they do not train key members of staff designated to receive concerns and nearly half of companies (44%) confuse personal complaints with whistleblowing.

Half of the organisations say that regulators review their policies and just 30% of respondents tell staff how to approach a regulator. This is extremely disappointing as regulatory involvement is pivotal and regulators should be taking the lead in overseeing and reviewing arrangements to ensure consistency, effectiveness and best practice.

There is a clear disconnect between the public discourse and what goes on behind closed doors. A whistleblowing policy cannot cure institutional silence on its own. It must be implemented by staff with expertise, backed by top management and underpinned by a strong regulatory response.  To prevent future scandals, organisations must take heed: we need an honest and pragmatic commitment to whistleblowing not a tickbox approach.

Carousel image: Creative commons, Flickr / Anthony Kelly

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