THE BLOG

Whistleblowers: Heroes Not Traitors

03/03/2015 17:32 GMT | Updated 03/05/2015 10:59 BST

Whistleblowers should get better protection than warm words if standards across the services and businesses we all rely on are to be maintained.

What we have instead is a culture of lip-service to an idea, often after a problem has been exposed, with a piecemeal approach that relies on individual organisations and companies acting to protect those who bring issues into the open.

More must be done. As Albert Einstein noted: "The world is a dangerous place, not because of those who do evil but because of those who look on and do nothing."

So two cheers only for Tesco chief executive David Lewis, who has just announced a 'protector line' for employees to report, anonymously, suspected irregularities. I suspect it will be considerably cheaper than the cost and fall-out from the accounting black hole scandal that triggered it.

But only two cheers. It is breathtaking that one of the world's largest retailers apparently had no similar system in place before scandal came knocking.

Not that the problem is limited to the private sector. Finally, the Government has promised legislation to protect NHS whistleblowers from the quite disgraceful cobnsequences many of them have faced.

The Freedom to Speak Up review by Sir Robert Francis QC into the treatment of whistleblowers in the NHS, which has triggered it, detailed a litany of appalling treatment of those who sought to expose cover-ups and financial irregularities.

But legislation can only go so far. The culture of organisations needs to change. I know from my own experience that, as with so many things, public promises of intent often collide with contradictory realities on the ground.

Whistleblowing can be discouraged in subtle ways to do with working culture in an organisation: Fear of being exposed as a 'grass' or not a team player. All these can chill a career and make a working life hell on earth.

It is sometimes argued that a thin a line exists between maliciously leaking company secrets and seeking to right a wrong. But this is a smoke screen. It is always very clear when someone has done the former, for which their are legal remedies.

What is not clear is company cultures. The National Audit Office last year listed a number of scandals, including the Herald of Free Enterprise sinking and the Clapham train collision, where the dangers were known, but those who knew of them were too frightened to speak out.

Sometimes information is held by so few people that the code of anonymity is easily cracked, or might be. How are they to be protected by 'anonymous' hotlines?

The whistleblowing charity Public Concern at Work found that 63% of employers denied or ignored concerns raised by whistle blowers, over half of whom were dismissed or resigned after raising their worries.

Almost on a weekly basis we read of wrongdoing where individuals in a range of organisations including hospitals, institutions and banks have failed to, or chosen not to see, the failures of fellow workers.

The law is there, if not always the will. Legislation exists in the UK to protect the whistle blower who reports suspected wrong doing at work where they "make a disclosure in the public interest". A worker who is dismissed or bullied for whistleblowing can also claim unfair dismissal in the Employment Tribunal. But in reality, few will have the stomach for taking such action with its implications for future employment.

Whistleblowers are heroes not traitors. It is essential within both the corporate and public sectors that cultural changes take place to encourage individuals to speak up. Those in authority must investigate concerns rather than ignore or punish the individual who raises them. Don't shoot the messenger, as Einstein might have added.