When it comes to calling out wrongdoing in the workplace, could it be that some people are more likely to speak up than others? That’s the assertion of academic David Lewis, Professor of Employment Law and Head of the Whistleblowing Research Unit at Middlesex University, who’s calling for more research to look into the subject.
In their joint article ‘Is there a link between whistleblowing and autism?’, Professor Lewis and Helen Evans (autistic whistleblower, previously of Oxfam) hypothesised that the characteristics commonly associated with autism spectrum conditions might mean those on the autistic spectrum are more likely to whistleblow than their neurotypical counterparts.
At Protect, a notable number of callers to our Advice Line identify as being neurodivergent and/or on the autistic spectrum. While this observation doesn’t prove a link, we think this warrants exploration.
As Professor Lewis and Helen Evans identify, key strengths associated with autism can include a strong sense of right and wrong as well as determination and conviction in ideas and beliefs. Callers to our Advice Line who identify as being on the autistic spectrum also describe valuing rules (and therefore feeling uncomfortable when they are broken), being less susceptible to organisational pressure to stay silent (due to challenges interpreting social norms) and strongly believing that wrongs should be made right. With this in mind, it is possible to conjecture that people on the autistic spectrum may possess traits which could lend themselves to both identifying misconduct and making them more likely than their neurotypical peers to call out the wrongdoing.
As whistleblower Helen Evans says:
Speaking of their experience as a whistleblower with autism and ADHD, Tommy* a caller to Protect’s Advice Line said:
Whistleblowing and the law
Under the Employment Rights Act 1996, if a whistleblower is victimised or dismissed by their employer for making a protected disclosure (the legal term for whistleblowing), they can bring a claim against their employer in the Employment Tribunal. To succeed, the negative treatment suffered by the whistleblower must be directly linked to them having blown the whistle. However, employers can argue that their reason for disciplining or dismissing a whistleblower wasn’t related to their whistleblowing and instead, was down to their conduct or manner when they raised their concerns.
Professor Lewis and Helen Evans suggest autistic whistleblowers could find themselves unintentionally committing misconduct by trying to find supporting evidence for their concern, due to their need to prove the wrongdoing they perceive. Autism is also associated with repetitive behaviours which could cause issues for any potential whistleblower who may be penalised for the way they raise their concerns, which some may view as inappropriate behaviour.
This focus on ‘how’ a person blows the whistle fails to recognise the differences facing a neurodivergent worker attempting to raise concerns. However, this is where section 15 of the Equality Act 2010 – providing protection to someone with a qualifying disability – could come into play, although this is still an untested area of law.
A barrier to whistleblowing?
With the focus of whistleblowing being to stop harm and wrongdoing, another troubling prospect is that neurodivergent workers may in fact decide against raising their concerns at all for fear of exacerbating pre-existing discrimination. Research has shown that seven out of ten neurodivergent workers say they have experienced workplace discrimination. Such employees are therefore likely to require additional support and reassurance from their employers in the whistleblowing process to safely voice their concerns.
To conclude, it is certainly possible that workers on the autistic spectrum may be more inclined to raise concerns and therefore stop harm. But further research and employer understanding of neurodivergence is needed to ensure there is better support for all those who speak up to stop harm.
*Name has been changed at request of the individual.
 Kong v Gulf International Bank (UK) Ltd  EWCA CIV 941
 The Westminster AchieveAbility Commission for Dyslexia and Neurodivergence, Neurodiverse voices: Opening Doors to Employment, January 2018, page 49, https://www.achieveability.org.uk/files/1518955206/wac-report_2017_interactive-2.pdf