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Seth Freedman

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To Blow Or Not to Blow?

Posted: 30/01/2013 00:00

Curtains drawn, faces stern, I drop the USB stick into the evidence bag, before it is swiftly pulled away and tightly sealed shut. I slump back in my chair, accept their thanks, rise weakly to my feet and get escorted to the exit. No going back now, but no idea what's awaiting me going forward either. To blow or not to blow? At least I've dealt with that question, cue the slings and arrows and all manner of assault.

Whistleblowing is far from suitable for every situation, especially in the UK where the current legislation is worryingly insufficient to encourage whistleblowers to speak out. My own experience at the centre of the gas price-fixing allegations has been a textbook case of what happens when companies find themselves under the spotlight after allegations of abuse have come to the surface.

Suspended from work? Check. Smeared by corporate figures both in public and private? Check. Dismissed from work without any disciplinary procedure followed, delved into by investigators hired to discredit me, disadvantaged for any potential future employment in the field? Check, check, check. The onslaught is inevitable, and you've got to be prepared for the worst.

Even the upside can bring you down. In my case, seeing my revelations trigger a debate in Parliament less than 24 hours later and being called to Brussels to give evidence to officials at both the European Parliament and European Commission was a massive reassurance that my allegations were being taken seriously. At the same time, however, seeing how little some regulators and politicians actually knew - and, in many cases, cared - about the issues at hand was highly alarming.

The response from closer to ground level was far more encouraging. Right across the political spectrum, the press gave supportive and extensive coverage to the story: tabloids and broadsheets, right- and left-wing papers all united as one to throw their weight behind the calls for a full investigation into the gas market, and their readers added online support in their thousands.

But the insouciance with which many in the trading community and wider gas industry treated the accusations suggested that they knew they would remain insulated from both punitive and regulatory measures, despite all the politicians' hype during the height of the coverage. For far too long, energy markets have been largely unregulated and traders left to their own devices as they attempt to profit from gyrations in the prices of some of our most essential commodities. Expecting overnight change now was far too optimistic, but at least I hoped my evidence helped add to the argument against letting the laissez-faire status quo remain in place for long.

Once the story faded from the front pages, my personal battles began, as my firm set about exacting retribution against me for my so-called crimes. Suspended from work and unable to seek new employment, stress and fear took hold as I dealt with the ramifications of my actions. Even though I had followed correct whistleblower procedure and had acted in order to protect my firm's reputation, I was being punished rather than rewarded for my approach to the regulator. The revenge was swift, and even though I'd seen it coming, it was still a shock when the axe fell and I was slung out on the street.

Other whistleblowers approached me, telling similar tales of malice and mistreatment. Many of them had even worse experiences than mine, suffering intimidation, physical violence, financial destitution and all manner of health and relationship breakdowns. The common theme in all their narratives was a feeling that not only was the law wholly on the side of the banks and corporations rather than their cowed employees, but also that the UK was doomed to lag far behind other countries' attempts to belatedly redress the situation.

Recent reports claim that calls to the FSA's whistleblower hotline have close to trebled since the start of the financial crisis, yet real and serious efforts to assist whistleblowers come forward are few and far between. Companies still feel sufficiently emboldened to fire whistleblowers with impunity, safe in the knowledge that their victims will often be forced to abandon their unfair dismissal claims, thanks to legal costs at employment tribunals being unrecoverable from the losing side. Thanks in part to gagging orders imposed in many out-of-court settlements, the naming and shaming of organisations who mistreat whistleblowers is not prevalent enough to do serious damage to the guilty parties' brands and image and thus force them to think twice about their vindictiveness.

Until such a change occurs, plenty of would-be whistleblowers will get scared off by the horror stories of those who've gone before. And in an age when big business badly needs to be brought to heel, discouraging employees from speaking out is the last thing society needs. One day, to blow or not to blow should be easily answered by the former option. For now, sadly, it is the latter that is all too often forced to prevail.

 
 
 
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