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How to manage whistle-blowing in the workplace

It’s a new day and whilst scanning your very busy inbox you spot some fresh emails of high importance. Upon opening and digesting the trending subject line it quickly becomes clear that an employee has publicly lifted the lid on a perceived problem within your business.

This is the first time you are hearing about it, alongside a slew of others who are already coming to you with questions. That sinking feeling is the realisation and horror that you are now amidst a scandal and about to be caught up in a social media storm.

Fraud, health and safety risk, damage to the environment, a miscarriage of justice or criminal activity, whatever the issue it’s one you don’t want your company to be associated with.

This nightmare is real and has the potential to stir up a whirlwind of emotions and risky outbursts. You’ll want immediate answers and there will be actions that you will need to take to protect your reputation and your business.

But before making any impulsive decisions it is vital to gain understanding of what has happened, how you can address the situation legally and prevent it from ever happening again.

If you find yourself in a situation such as this, you are quite possibly dealing with a whistle-blower.

Due to a whistle-blower’s motivations normally being deemed to be in the public interest, they are legally protected under the Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998. And it is therefore advised to proceed with caution.

What steps should employers take to manage a whistle-blower?

Seek to understand
If this is the first time you are hearing about a major problem within your business, your first line of inquiry should be with your management or leadership team. How did it get to this point? Why were you not made aware of any problems, especially those carrying significant risk?

If you have a much smaller team and deal directly with your employees, you’ll want to speak with the employee in question and find out why they felt they couldn’t raise their concerns with you first.

Investigate your processes
In order to uncover the truth of the matter, it is important to investigate your current processes. A whistle-blowing case suggests that something or someone has gone awry and some sort of intervention could be necessary to get back on track.

Your investigations could result in some difficult conversations. Be sure to follow the correct procedure when handling these to reduce further risk to your business.

Know the risks
If the whistle-blowing employee is under performance management, it is advised that you manage this independently to the whistle-blowing case. If they are eventually dismissed due to poor performance, you’ll need to have documented evidence to show that this was not in relation to whistle-blowing.

Dismissing an employee for whistle-blowing can result in an automatic unfair dismissal claim of grand proportions. And as we have seen in the case of Osipov v International Petroleum, directors can also be personally liable.

Take proactive measures
Implement a whistle-blowing policy. This will inform managers and employees of how to formally raise and report concerns.

You may also wish to look into your company culture and assess the current level of employee voice and representation. Higher diversity and the practice of involving your employees in decision making can help to highlight concerns before they turn into sources of conflict.

Enlist expertise
Dealing with the fallout of a whistle-blowing case can be stressful and comes with many legal obligations. Let an expert take the load off you, and contact your local HR Dept today.