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How can HR support whistleblowers?

We asked HR leaders for advice about how best to support whistleblowers at work - ©danijelala/Adobe Stock

An employment tribunal began last week (Thursday 2 May) that is set to decide the extent of civil servants’ rights to make public interest disclosures to the press. As former civil servant Josie Stewart’s case against the Foreign and Commonwealth Office continues, we asked HR leaders for advice about how best to support whistleblowers at work.

Speaking to HR magazine, Kate Caulkin, the National Audit Office (NAO)’s people and operational management insights director, said: “HR leaders and organisations need to raise awareness and encourage people to raise concerns.

“Ensure a positive experience for whistleblowers and use learning to improve whistleblowing arrangements.”

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Helen Watson, partner and head of employment law at Aaron and Partners, told HR magazine: “HR leaders should make all employees aware of whistleblowing policy and provide regular training on it. Whistleblowing should be made easy and confidential, to ensure protection and support for anyone who feels they need to blow the whistle. It’s a good idea to have a confidential helpline for whistleblowers and/or a key point of contact.”

Watson added that HR leaders must never seek to prevent a protected disclosure from being made. Instead, they should reassure all staff of their safety, to encourage disclosures. “By encouraging a whistleblower to make a protected disclosure it allows the company to address the situation correctly and ensure the employee is not put to any detriment for taking this action. By addressing the issue, it seeks to protect the company, the employee and the wider workforce, and the public.”

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Speaking to HR magazine, Andrew Pepper-Parsons, director of policy and communications for Protect, a charity that supports whistleblowers, said: “An important aspect is communicating to the rest of the organisation that whistleblowers are the eyes and ears of any organisation, and the most effective way for wrongdoing or risk to be identified.

“Sitting behind this message needs to be a clear idea of HR’s function within the organisation’s whistleblowing arrangements: are they the first point of contact for staff, or is there a specialist whistleblowing function? Making sure this is communicated to staff and managers via training is going to be key, as well as ensuring that HR is trained on how to respond effectively to whistleblowers.”

But what should a whistleblowing policy include? Clarity is key, Watson stressed: “Whistleblowers will very often be frightened of repercussion, so it’s important to clearly explain in a policy how whistleblowers are encouraged to make a disclosure and that clear measures are in place to ensure this can be done with ease. Confidentiality and protection are paramount.”

Pepper-Parsons added: “A good whistleblowing policy is one that provides a clear alternative for staff to raise concerns outside of their line management, including to relevant regulators, is written in a plain English, avoiding jargon, and gives staff a clear idea of types of issues raised under the policy. 

“What can be useful is tailoring these issues to the risks faced by the organisations. For example, a construction company’s policy will have examples of safety risks on their sites. A great whistleblowing policy is one that is supported by training for staff and managers, has a regular communication plan and an annual review of the effectiveness of the whistleblowing policy at board level.”

As well as crafting effective policy, HR leaders may also need to tackle negative perceptions when dealing with whistleblowers. On this, Pepper-Parsons said: “There can be a misconception that whistleblowers are a threat, rather than the most loyal member of staff who is willing to challenge when others are unwilling. Whistleblowers can assume HR is only going to represent the interests of senior managers and the organisation. Both views are incorrect, and can be counteracted where HR is clear and honest in its communication about HR’s role, and expectations from a whistleblowing process, i.e. what level of feedback is provided to the whistleblower on the concerns raised etc.”

Pepper-Parsons encouraged HR leaders to ensure that legal support is provided to whistleblowers, explaining that: “HR is always going to be part of the employers infrastructure so it’s inappropriate for them to give advice; that’s better done by organisations such as Protect, or by trade unions.”

When in doubt, stick to best practice, Caulkin encouraged. “My advice to those who feel conflicted about protecting the needs of the organisation and supporting whistleblowing employees is to have good practice at the forefront of your mind. A whistleblowing policy is not just a box-ticking exercise, it needs to be fully embedded in the culture of an organisation.”

She added: “Here at the NAO, we have taken our knowledge of whistleblowing across the civil service and created a practical how-to guide to help organisations in this area. I urge HR professionals to read our good practice guide on whistleblowing.”