Whistleblowing doesn’t have to be a bad experience

Getting whistleblowing right is not easy for an organisation. But even more importantly, stepping forward as a whistleblower is no easy feat.

Often, it’s done alone, which can be terribly isolating. It can lead to stress, victimisation and take a high personal toll, in and out of work. So that’s why ensuring that the experience of the whistleblower is positive is hugely important.

Whistleblowing is a bold and active thing to do. Where whistleblowers challenge entrenched views or behaviours, organisations need to genuinely ‘hear’ their concerns and pay attention, even when whistleblowers can put organisational goals and reputations at risk.

UK employers slack on whistleblowing training

Protect, the charity that helps whistleblowers with confidential advice and campaigns for better legal protection for whistleblowers, has an ambition for all employers to see whistleblowers as the most loyal within an organisation. Organisations that see whistleblowers as inconvenient, irritating or unhelpful risk failing to learn from the insights whistleblowers can offer. 

Currently, too many whistleblowers face a difficult journey in raising concerns, and too many employers find it easier to shoot the messenger rather than take on board matters of risk and harm. This attitude shift takes time and effort to embed, but it can be done. At the National Audit Office (NAO) we’ve seen examples of organisations trying to make improvements.

High-performing organisations want to hear from whistleblowers, and recognise that they can support organisational learning, even if the process is challenging. It is a vital organisational protection, as it provides a way for organisations to hear concerns about serious wrongdoing that may not otherwise be discovered.

The process can be confusing though for people who want to come forward. Who exactly do they need to go to? And where can they get support and advice? Too often, there is confusion between whistleblowing and personal grievances between an employer and employee. Complex cases could also entail both, so the lines are even further blurred.

Navigating the whistleblowing landscape

When it works well it allows organisations to identify problems early on, whether its about improper conduct of public organisations, value for money, or fraud and corruption that could cause significant harm.

As we all know, a well-written HR policy does not in itself improve the effectiveness of any given area. The same goes for whistleblowing. Real improvement comes with truly changing the culture of the organisation. The policy needs to be lived and breathed every day to become fully ingrained.

That is why, here at the NAO, we have taken our knowledge of whistleblowing across the civil service and produced a practical how-to guide to help improve whistleblowing.

We focus on raising awareness and encouraging people to raise concerns, ensuring a positive experience for whistleblowers and using learning to improve whistleblowing arrangements. With our unique perspective, we have drawn on our work, auditing the whole of government, to give people access to our insights in an accessible way. Many of the hints and tips we suggest can be used across the public sector, and more widely.

Our guide collates insights on common factors that contribute to good practice and gives people who deal with whistleblowing, whether that’s as a senior leader within HR or as the first point of contact by email or phone, ideas on how they might adopt them.

For example, as you may not be able to contact a whistleblower again for further information, it’s really important to gather as much information as you can right from the start.

How (not) to handle disclosures by whistleblowers

We include case studies from the likes of HM Revenue and Customs, the Department for Work and Pensions and the Home Office, and also prompt questions for people to use for further learning.

It can be read in one go, at 28 pages, or you can dip in and out depending on the area you are interested in.

We share insights and principles that people within organisations can adapt to their own context to improve.

We don’t claim to have all the answers when it comes to improving whistleblowing, but downloading this guide and having a read for yourself would be a positive first step forward.

Read our Good Practice Guide on whistleblowing in the civil service

By Kate Caulkin, director of the People and Operational Management Insights Team at the NAO