Why small businesses need a whistleblowing policy

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Many employers only associate whistleblowing in the workplace with big firms. However, as an HR consultant, I have had to deal with a recent case involving one of my SME clients. In this article, I will outline why small businesses require a whistleblowing policy.

Several high-profile whistleblowers have caught the attention of the national press, highlighting major issues at organisations such as aircraft manufacturer Boeing and the UK’s Civil Service. Unfortunately, most of these cases resulted in the whistleblower being forced to leave their employers as a result of speaking out.

How would you deal with an employee who spoke out about your business? Would you deal with the issues they highlighted? Could you guarantee that the person does not face discrimination for their actions?

Here is some helpful information for small businesses, including why I recommend adopting a whistleblowing policy…

What is the definition of whistleblowing?

The term whistleblowing describes a situation where an employee voices concerns about wrongdoing in the workplace. Common issues include companies taking shortcuts ignoring health and safety rules, or profiting from illegal activity.

The Government website says a whistleblower is “a worker who reports certain types of wrongdoing. This will usually be something [they’ve] seen at work – though not always. The wrongdoing [they] disclose must be in the public interest. This means it must affect others, for example the general public.”

Six types of complaints are defined as whistleblowing and protected by law:

  • criminal offences (e.g. fraud)
  • miscarriages of justice
  • a person’s health and safety is at risk
  • if a company breaks the law
  • wrongdoing is being covered up
  • risk or damage to the environment.

Workplace grievances such as bullying or harassment are not covered by a whistleblowing policy, and should be dealt with through the employer’s grievance policy.

Is there legal protection for whistleblowers?

The Public Interest Disclosure Act 1988 (PIDA) allows UK workers to bring a claim at an employment tribunal if they have made a complaint, known as a protected disclosure, and subsequently been treated badly or sacked.

As highlighted above, complaints need to satisfy certain conditions before being classed as protected, and pass a public interest test. For example, complaints to an external public body (e.g. Health and Safety Executive or industry regulator) will be protected. However, making complaints via the media will only be protected unless there is no relevant external body or the complaint has not received a satisfactory response.

What are the benefits of a whistleblowing policy?

Every responsible employer should adopt a whistleblowing policy to protect both the business and the employees. The policy will reassure your staff that their concerns will be treated as important, without any repercussions. Adhering to a policy also offers a layer of protection, reducing the risk of procedural errors leading to a costly tribunal.

Acting positively and proactively is key as many large corporations have had their reputations ruined by senior managers attempting to shut down whistleblowing cases.

Any whistleblowing policy needs to state how seriously your business would treat whistleblowing complaints. You need to show that employees can inform their line managers in confidence, or make a direct complaint to HR or senior management. Cover the steps of the investigation process once wrongdoing is reported. Make it clear that staff will not be penalised for making disclosures

Please be aware that speaking up is a brave step by the employee, and may not be welcomed by fellow workers as livelihoods could be put at risk. That’s why your whistleblowing policy needs to be supported by a company culture that protects anyone reporting wrongdoing.

Need advice from an HR professional?

People problems are never straightforward, so businesses should seek professional advice. JT HRConsultancy is an established HR services company based in Bedfordshire with clients across the UK. If you need help of advice on an employment issue, call me on 07715 026128 or email jo@jt-hrconsultancy.com

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