· 3 min read · Features

Whistleblowing: Removing the wilful blindfold


What happens at leadership level to make things 'undiscussable'? And what does it mean for HR?

Barely a week goes by when there isn’t something in the news about whistleblowing. Typically the sense is that an individual (often a ‘lone voice’) has plucked up the courage to speak out in the face of conscious and/or unconscious systemic blindness to some form of misconduct or unethical behaviour.

However, for all the public admiration, whistleblowers rarely get welcomed back into the fold, either by their organisation or society as a whole. HBOS whistleblower Paul Moore found himself unable to work in banking again. Liza Martin, who went public with the abuse she saw at the Orchid View care home in 2011, and was still out of work two years later.

So what is really happening at leadership level that can shine a light on how things become undiscussable? And what does this mean for HR?

Hear no evil, speak no evil

The abuse at Mid-Staffs Hospital and the Francis Report that followed are a useful case study. In a BBC Radio 4 programme (NHS: Changing Culture, broadcast 18 September 2013), it was suggested you can tell when a leadership team has lost its way from its meeting agendas.

Research led by Michael West of Lancaster University Management School found the priorities of NHS Trust meetings have a direct correlation to patient care. A lack of focus in board meetings on patient care led to lower engagement levels, which in turn eroded patient care as staff felt and/or were unsupported.

So what is happening when leadership behaves like that? One possible answer is wilful blindness, neatly summed up by Margaret Heffernan in her book of the same name. Wilful blindness is “a reluctance to confront uncomfortable facts”.

Heffernan is essentially asking us to confront what we blind ourselves to. Crucially, she challenges “the artificial divide between personal and working lives".

“Every workforce is a conglomeration of individuals whose behaviours and habits started well before they were hired. Individuals, singly and in groups, are both equally susceptible to wilful blindness; what makes organisations different is the sheer scale of damage they can cause.”

In effect, the organisational system, its entire culture, is geared towards protecting the status quo, and will not tolerate you pointing out something that may fundamentally undermine the dominant narrative.

So what do leaders do?

One of the absurdities is that organisations – and legislators – often see ever more procedures, policies and inspection regimes as the only solution. Among the key findings in the Lancaster University report mentioned earlier were:

  • Excessive box-ticking to comply with external requirements rather than improve services
  • Highly variable staff support and a lack of respect and appreciation
  • 'Comfort-seeking behaviours', which focus on making a good external impression, and view staff who raise concerns as trouble-makers and whiners
  • Indiscriminate or inappropriate use of quality improvement management techniques and a belief in 'magical thinking' – that the initiative will solve many problems quickly and easily

Leaders, HR, employees, external stakeholders, customers, the media and politicians are all seeking a silver bullet, a solution that targets the problem, as if Mid Staffs was ever about one hospital or leadership team.

This is about patterns of relating, the quality of conversation between people, the degree of support and challenge that is tolerated, and whether that is balanced.

Where does that leave HR?

HR has been in an existential crisis for a number of years. In among the self-flagellation, the drive to ‘get closer to the business’ and the ‘let’s all do business-partnering', a fundamental point is missed.

Taking the NHS as an example, my experience of HR professionals in that sector is that they tend to want to learn about tools and techniques that they can use on people, rather than engaging in development as a means to improving how they work with others.

Systemically it plays out in the move towards the separation of ‘hard’ HR functions and the creation of ‘staff side’ functions. This not only reinforces the instrumentality of HR, it codifies that HR is not willing/able/trusted (delete as applicable) to do the human stuff.

If you want hard data, read up on Public Concern at Work's research, which last year pointed out that while 93% of UK businesses had formal whilstleblowing policies in place, 33% of respondents thought said policies were ineffective, and over half of these organisations did not train the staff designated to deal with concerns.

HR people – and departments – need to develop themselves, and decide what they stand for. Then it comes down to whether you have the courage to speak the truth, and live with the consequences.

Writing another policy document or learning a new ‘tool’ simply won’t cut it. That in turn dovetails with leaders taking responsibility for how they deal with issues they would really rather not have to.

Steve Hearsum is a development consultant at Roffey Park