"You must have known you'd be sacked for speaking out, right?" It's the most common question I'm asked about the gas price-fixing scandal, and reveals the low expectations of press and public alike when considering the consequences of making public interest disclosures. As whistleblowing charity Public Concern At Work (PCAW) describe it, a "culture of silence" continues to reign in workplaces across Britain, despite years of promises from politicians to improve protection and support for those bringing their concerns to light.
In my case, as with so many others, the answer is I fully expected to be forced out of my firm for my actions, despite having acted entirely properly, in good faith, and in accordance with the law. My expectations stemmed from the same dispiriting awareness of the status quo as those asking me the question, having seen similar punitive measures perennially meted out against whistleblowers.
According to 'Whistleblowing: The Inside Story', a hard-hitting report issued by PCAW today, whistleblowers still face a raft of often insurmountable hurdles when trying to get their concerns heard and dealt with by employers and regulators. Having analysed the experiences of 1,000 callers to the PCAW advice line, researchers have produced a comprehensive study showing the problems faced by employees at every stage of the whistleblowing process - and the results show a system badly in need of fixing.
The data revals that the vast majority of whistleblowers received no response from management, and are left to draw their own conclusions from their superiors' lack of engagement with the issues raised. Those who do, often find that reprisals are taken against them, with 70% of individuals stating that their position worsened every time they raised a concern. In such an atmosphere, it is little wonder that so many whistleblowers are intimidated into keeping quiet rather than seeing through the process until their concerns are properly addressed.
In my case, despite having followed correct whistleblower procedure and my company ICIS Heren claiming that they had no problem with my making disclosures to the regulator and media, it was clear from the off that I would be ostracised, victimised and ultimately sacked.
My harsh treatment at work was compounded by a near-total inertia on the part of Ofgem, the gas market regulator. Despite being presented with a substantial cache of evidence, Ofgem officials stated they had neither the required powers nor comprehension to properly investigate the suspicious trading, and didn't bother interviewing key witnesses as part of their probe. PCAW's study makes key suggestions for regulators - including providing far more support and guidance for potential whistleblowers, in order to better support them through what will likely be a highly stressful and tortuous process.
PCAW have launched a Whistleblowing Commission in order to make recommendations for change, and though they have the ear of businesses who sign up to their code of practice, they know they face a mammoth task convincing employers and legislators alike of the urgency and scale of the improvements required.
When I brought my concerns to my bosses that suspicious trading was taking place on the UK wholesale gas market, and asked them to inform the regulator of my fears, I was met with comments intended to shut me up and keep me in my place. "We can't stop people trying to manipulate the market", said a manager. "The question of whether we should report it [to the regulator]? We have no obligation to do that". Another stated that traders liked "to have that option" to manipulate our firm's gas price assessments, with neither he nor other managers seeing the need to change a system of pricing which was so clearly vulnerable to potential abuse.
With management taking such an apathetic attitude, and the regulator following suit, using the press to keep the spotlight on the allegations was my only option in order for my concerns not to be swept under the carpet while the problems persisted. While my approach to the media was entirely justified by the Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998 (PIDA), my company still felt suitably emboldened to fire me less than two months after the story broke.
There are countless would-be whistleblowers across the country with equally valid concerns, who are being badly let down by the current system, and whose plight is laid bare by PCAW's report. Until businesses, regulators and legislators make serious efforts to protect whistleblowers, all manner of abuse and corruption will continue to go undetected and unpunished, and we will all be the worse off for its remaining forever buried.