Case Studies

Reflections on 2020: whistle-blowing paradox

by Mark Rowe

We continue our series of reflections on 2020, a year that will long be defined by coronavirus. Yet the truth is that much else has happened, either affected by the virus and the economic effects of the lockdown response to the pandemic.

Pictured from the summer is the remains of the Edward Colston statue in Bristol city centre, after a crowd tore down the actual statue and dumped it in the nearby harbour, angered by Colston’s connections with slavery. Such a campaign against visible signs of the slave trade – as in Colston’s case, places named after slavers – has gone on for years. So has protest against police brutality, and Black Lives Matter was galvanised by the George Floyd case. Likewise the MeToo movement against sexual misconduct. All require people to take a stand against injustice; to call it out; as this week in the Champions League soccer match between Paris St Germain and Istanbul Basaksehir, postponed for 24 hours after players stopped in protest against alleged racism by a pitchside official. In sum, all these movements for change require whistle-blowers.

Leaving the politics of BLM and the legalities of throwing civic monuments into water, whistle-blowing is also a tool for security and compliance departments, whether crime or not. Typically, whistle-blowing brings to the attention of businesses internal fraud, that does not get spotted by audit, internal or external. On the railways, for instance, whistle-blowing is also of use, whereby employees can raise health and safety concerns, whether of ways of working or hours worked causing fatigue. Or, to take a private security example, the Security Industry Authority uses the charity Crimestoppers, whereby anyone can anonymously report concerns of SIA badging non-compliance, whether by a person or company.

In Leicester the authorities are using bus stop advertising and have sent an e-newsletter to Leicestershire garment manufacturing businesses to raise awareness of modern slavery, and promoting how to contact Crimestoppers, to encourage people to speak up anonymously about suspected victims of modern slavery and human trafficking.

Speaking up is a natural widespread tool – let alone during the pandemic, for how do people raise breaches of covid social distancing and PPE rules in factories and care homes, or furlough fraud, whereby an employer takes money off the government without passing it on to employees? HMRC runs (weekday office hours) phone lines for reporting of covid-related and other frauds. Implied is both cause and public willingness to ‘blow the whistle’, as doing the right thing.

Some in the counter-fraud profession query the term whistle-blowing, suggesting that it implies those who ‘blow the whistle’ are shifty, and somehow letting the team down; they prefer more neutral terms such as ‘speaking up’. How an issue raised by a whistle-blower is responded to by an employer is a further sign of the cross-over between the two, the social justice movements and the more workaday speaking up about workplace safety.

As a study of whistle-blowing released in October by the law firm Freshfields said, mismanagement of a whistleblowing complaint can have serious reputational and financial consequences – ‘either because of the negative impact on the employer’s ability to contain and respond to the underlying problem, or because of the fallout when a whistleblower’s alleged mistreatment comes to the attention of the authorities or the media’.

The survey – of some 2500 people, in the UK, US, Hong Kong, Germany and France, done at the start of working from home as offices closed in the first spring 2020 lockdown, last done in 2017 – found some ‘worrying trends for organisations that have been seeking to strengthen their speak-up culture. There has been a decrease in those who have been involved in some way in whistleblowing, and in the levels of confidence that senior management would offer support or encouragement in the whistleblowing process. The data also shows an increase in those who are likely to make a report directly to the authorities or the media, rather than their employer – perhaps unsurprising, when coupled with an apparent decline in the levels of trust within organisations. This highlights the importance of organisations revisiting their efforts to foster a speak-up culture, and to look critically at what might be impacting employees’ willingness to raise concerns internally.”

As for that decline in confidence that senior management would offer support or encouragement in the whistleblowing process, in 2017 some 40pc – that is, a minority – felt they would be supported; in 2020 it was 32pc. More drastically, the fear that senior management would look for a way to terminate a whistleblower’s employment
also rose, from 11pc in 2017 to 17pc in 2020.

As the report suggested, employees may feel ‘general disillusionment with internal whistleblowing procedures’ and more employees may simply turn to external sources, such as regulators, with their concerns, rather than their line managers or more senior managers. In other words, the decline in confidence in whistle-blowing does not take away the point of blowing the whistle, nor the things that whistle-blowers seek to speak up about. As Protect said in its report, The Best Warning System: Whistleblowing During Covid-19, too many whistleblowers feel ignored and isolated once they raise their concerns – a systematic problem.

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