Whistleblowing – what the research and policy says

Whistleblowing – what the research and policy says in more detail

Despite 12 years of PIDA it appears that workers are still discouraged from raising concerns for fear of reprisals

Hobby, 2011

The effectiveness of whistlebowing as a self-regulatory mechanism has been questioned as it places an overreliance on worker motivation to report concerns (Pemberton et al, 2012). It takes a great deal of courage for an individual to raise concerns, either internally or externally, about poor practice or abuse within an organisation.

Where organisational culture tolerates bad practice, an individual challenging this can become the focus of attention (Dadswell, 2000). They may be labelled with negative words and seen as the wrongdoer or a traitor (Greene, 2004). As Martin (1999) points out:  ‘the organisation has all the advantages. It has far more money, unlimited time and usually little individual responsibility. It can stall, resist giving information, hire expensive lawyers and mount attacks’.

A review of the effectiveness of whistleblowing legislation after 10 years found it does not provide ‘adequate protection’ to people who disclose their concerns (Lewis, 2008).There are numerous case examples of individuals suffering as a result of raising concerns. These include people facing legal action and associated costs (Calkin, 2013), being ostracised or bullied and losing their job (Gillen 2011). Whistleblowing can ultimately result in damage to the person’s career and reputation and in poor mental or physical health (Pemberton et al, 2012). The fear of such consequences can deter people from making the decision to report their concerns.

In April 2009 the case of Margaret Haywood reinforced the dilemma for employees. Margaret carried out covert filming for Panorama (BBC, 2005) to expose the neglect of older people in hospital. She felt that her managers would not listen and that her actions were ‘the only way to get something done about the complaints which were received” (Nursing Times, 2009.) Margaret was found guilty of misconduct and struck off by the Nursing and Midwifery Council but, after a public campaign, she was reinstated and given a one year caution. Although Margaret was ultimately vindicated, by the public and her peers at least, this case, among many, demonstrates that whistleblowing still poses a significant risk to the whistleblower. This case highlights, in particular, the need for whistleblowers to weigh up the consequences against their other legal and professional responsibilities and to exhaust all other options before taking such serious steps as to contact the media.

There have been disastrous results for people using health and social care services in some cases where people have chosen not to blow the whistle, the most recent example being that of Mid Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust. There are plenty of other historical cases, for example, the Bristol heart scandal where the rate of death for babies during heart surgery was higher than the national average. Witnesses said they had been afraid to come forward even though they knew there was something wrong (BBC, 1999).

A study by the Institute of Business Ethics showed that a quarter of employees were aware of misconduct at work but more than half of those (52 per cent) failed to report it (Webley and Dryden, 2005). This finding was supported by evidence from the independent inquiry into the care provided by Mid Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust (2010). Studies show that employees are not necessarily willing to blow the whistle externally if concerns they have raised internally have been ignored (Pemberton et al, 2012).

Organisations can be deterred from acknowledging and dealing with whistleblowers’ disclosures for fear of legal action, compensation claims and damage to reputation. A poll by the General Social Care Council (2009) found that employers failed to take up concerns in 50 per cent of cases (Gillen, 2011). Robert Francis QC confirmed that failure to act was a factor in the case of Mid Staffordshire, saying: ‘It is now clear that some staff did express concern about the standard of care being provided to patients. The tragedy was that they were ignored and worse still others were discouraged from speaking out’ (Francis, 2013).

While organisations that cover up may seek to protect their reputation, they are likely to damage it and dent public confidence through failure to implement appropriate policies. Ignoring the concerns of employees can also be catastrophic for service providers. In the case of Castlebeck Ltd and Winterbourne View, concerns raised by whistleblower Terry Bryan were ignored. The exposé on Panorama (BBC, 2012) ‘demolished the company's reputation and shredded its value’ (Brindle, 2012) and shortly after, the company went into administration.

It is vital that whistleblowers are supported and protected and that enabling them to come forward is seen as an aspect of excellence within organisations. As Pemberton et al (2012) point out, ‘workers possess expert knowledge and are therefore well positioned to monitor and report organisational harm’, but they can only do so in a work environment that supports and protects them. Whistleblowing policies should be in place and all new employees should receive information on induction on how to raise concerns. Indeed employers could utilise the fresh perspective of new staff to improve practice (Dadswell, 2000).

Pemberton et al (2012) found that ‘the safest workplaces in the UK are those with strong trade unions, and that strong worker representation improves health and safety performance. This is also reflected in international research findings. Unions give individuals protection through a collective voice that has the position and strength to challenge those in power. Union membership can reduce the levels of fear and risk for individuals who wish to raise concerns and they are therefore more likely to do so.

If whistleblowers are protected and viewed in a positive rather than negative light, then more people will be willing to disclose concerns about poor practice. Employers should promote a culture of openness and honesty. The consequence of this will undoubtedly be better protection for people using health and social care services.