Whistle blowing in the workplace is the act of reporting a serious problem that has been seen or suspected inside an organisation.
This is different to filing a complaint or grievance, as the act of blowing the whistle must be done with public interest in mind, as the problem has to affect a wide range and number of people. A complaint is usually a personal issue an employee may have with another, and a grievance doesn’t usually relate to very serious criminal corruption acts in the same way whistleblowing does. In addition, complaints and grievances do not ultimately serve the public good, as they look to solve a personal issue within or about the company.
Whistleblowers usually report criminal activities like the mistreatment of an employee, damaging the environment or fraud, bribery and corruption. The disclosure of bullying, harassment or discrimination is not considered whistleblowing.
The act of whistleblowing and data protection law has entered the public debate in a huge way ever since 2013, when Edward Snowden leaked top-secret information about the activities of the United States of America’s National Security Agency (NSA) and Britain’s Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ). His treatment by UK and USA governments met global news coverage, as he was charged with stealing information relevant to American national security.
Whistleblowing in the Workplace
Whistle blowers at work may be employees that occupy most levels of authority inside an organisation, if they suspect or spot signs of criminal activity.
Creating an open and transparent work environment is very important as employees can spot the signs of corrupt practices quickly if they are suitably trained and know what to look for. If employees can spot the early signs of corruption, they can prevent it from spreading, secure the organisations finances and avoid any reputational damage the company may suffer from in the news headlines.
People who ‘blow the whistle’ against their employers have certain rights and protections, as stated under whistleblowing policies like the Public Interest Disclosure Act (PIDA) 1998. PIDA was an amendment made to the Employment Rights Act 1996 and makes dismissal due to the disclosure of information to the public unfair, illegal and punishable.
To count as whistleblowing, an employee must reveal information in a ‘qualifying disclosure’, which is essentially a release of information that the employee believes is in the public interest after witnessing a ‘relevant failure’ of the organisation. Relevant failures can be of criminal nature and include breaching contractual and legal duties as well as covering up any of this relevant information which would destroy trust with workers. It is not a qualifying disclosure if by revealing information, the whistleblower has committed an offence under the Official Secrets Act 1989.
Acts of whistleblowing are legally protected if they are disclosed to parties internally or externally, including the employer themselves or the UK Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) which counts as an independent body. According to ICO, an employee does not have to tell their organisation that they are drafting a disclosure, but it must be done using company policies and regulations. If an offence is especially serious, all disclosures made externally are protected if whistleblowers are acting in the public interest, not for personal gain and truly believe that the allegations are true.
If an organisation successfully fosters an open whistleblowing environment, employees are much more likely to disclose information directly through their organisations, reinforcing trust. To do so, policies must be drafted from the top-down with a huge commitment to ethics and credibility. After all, lawful information disclosure is the morally right thing to do, but employees must feel they are able to whistleblow without being victimised. If a whistleblower feels that they have been mistreated by their employer during the process, they can take their case to the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS) and attend an employment tribunal.