How to understand the rules of whistleblowing

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Whistleblowing – The Insider

The IoD’s Information and Advisory Service (IAS) explains your rights and responsibilities, both as an employer and as an employee, when it comes to the disclosure of misconduct in the workplace

The term “whistleblowing” refers to the act of reporting certain cases of actual or potential wrongdoing, usually at work. Such cases need to include at least one of the following: a crime; an illegal act; a miscarriage of justice; the endangerment of anyone’s health and safety; damage to the environment; or an attempt to conceal any of the above.

The disclosure must be in the public interest and be made to an employer, regulator, legal adviser or other appropriate party. Whether you’re an employer who’d like to know the rules should an employee make a disclosure, or you’re a senior executive seeking to understand what protection you’d have if you should blow the whistle yourself, here are the key facts.

Which legislation applies

A UK survey of public attitudes last year by whistleblower support charity Protect (formerly Public Concern at Work) found that 62 per cent of respondents were unaware that whistleblowers have legal protections. The Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998 (Pida) safeguards an individual against unfair treatment, including dismissal, if their disclosure meets the aforementioned criteria. A grievance that affects only the complainant – eg, one relating to bullying – is not covered.

Who is – and isn’t – protected

Employees, agency staff, contractors and trainees are covered by Pida. Job applicants, volunteers, interns, non-executive directors, public appointees and self-employed people are not, but Protect is lobbying for the act to be expanded to protect them.

How to blow the whistle

A whistleblower can report directly to their employer, which may have a policy setting out a procedure to follow. If so, this should include a commitment to do everything reasonable to protect the reporter’s identity, if requested. Alternatively, there is a “list of prescribed people and bodies” (searchable on gov.uk) that can be notified. Whistleblowers who approach an inappropriate party – the media, for instance – may lose their Pida rights.

A whistleblower who is unsatisfied with the response can contact Acas, Protect, Citizens Advice or their union.

A successful disclosure can prove crucial to the reputation of a whistleblower. For instance, Michael Woodford won several industry awards – and accepted a substantial out-of-court settlement – after he was dismissed as CEO of Olympus for exposing an accounting fraud there in 2011.

How to respond

It’s good practice to have a whistleblowing policy in place and to ensure that all staff are aware of it. The IAS (email businessinfo@iod.com) can provide a template policy for SMEs and a number of other focused whistleblowing resources. As an employer facing a complaint, you should collect as much evidence from the whistleblower as possible, taking care not to interfere with it. Some cases can be settled relatively simply, but others will require investigation internally or by a third party.

Visit iod.com/webinars to view an IoD webinar on whistleblowing

How the IAS can help you

• The Business Information Service (BIS) is accessible by email (businessinfo@iod.com) or call: 020 7451 3100

• The Directors’ Advisory Service (DAS) can give guidance by appointment, either face to face at 116 Pall Mall or over the phone: 020 7451 3188

• The legal helpline can answer quick queries about a vast range of issues: 0870 241 3478*

• The tax helpline can give callers advice on both commercial and personal tax matters: 01455 639110†

• IoD members are entitled to 25 enquiries a year to the BIS; four sessions with a DAS adviser; and 25 calls to both the legal and tax helplines. For further details, visit iod.com/information or email businessinfo@iod.com

* Quote your membership number
† Quote your membership number and reference number 33337

Pictured: In 1996 a former executive at US tobacco firm B&W, Jeffrey Wigand, revealed that the company had knowingly used toxic additives. His story was dramatised in The Insider, an Oscar-nominated film starring Russell Crowe as Wigand and Al Pacino as renowned investigative journalist Lowell Bergman

About author

Hannah Gresty

Hannah Gresty

Until she left the magazine in August 2019, Hannah Gresty was the assistant editor of Director. She previously worked on a local news website and at a fashion PR company before joining the Director team as editorial assistant in 2016.

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