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Preventing whistleblower victimisation benefits both staff and employers

Protect Legal Adviser, Rebecca Durkin, reflects on the significant abuse of whistleblowers in the UK and how our unique new guide will help employers address this problem.  

Behind every scandal or story of wrongdoing, there will often be a whistleblower – someone who has brought the concerns about wrongdoing to light. Too often though, there will be others who tried to come forward but were ignored and victimised, and many more who were too afraid to come forward at all.  

The victimisation of whistleblowers is something Protect’s advisers see every day on our Advice Line. 65% of the whistleblowers contacting our Advice Line in the last five years have experienced negative treatment for raising concerns. This can range from bullying and isolation to disciplinaries or dismissal. Victimisation can often be subtle and difficult to pin down – retaliation might be disguised in seemingly legitimate performance reviews or disciplinaries, or take the form of ostracism and exclusion from work groups and social events.  

This doesn’t just have a devastating impact on the individual who raises concerns – it has a chilling effect across the workforce, undermining whistleblowing arrangements as staff will be afraid to speak up themselves. Every example of victimisation means an opportunity to rectify the problem has been lost. Someone who was brave enough to come forward has been silenced, and others who see this happening will stay silent too. It can also mean reputational and financial damage to employers, particularly if it leads to legal claims from the whistleblower. 

Preventing victimisation needs to be at the core of any organisation’s whistleblowing arrangements. However, while there are many great examples of guidance on how to set up and run whistleblowing systems, the systems needed to prevent victimisation have been much less explored. For these reasons, Protect has set out to create its own guide for employers on Preventing Whistleblower Victimisation. 

The guide has been developed with a broad range of whistleblowing stakeholders from different organisations: this included those responsible for managing whistleblowing arrangements, those involved in supporting and advocating for whistleblowers, academics, trade unionists and whistleblowers themselves. We held five roundtables with representatives from organisations across the public, private and voluntary sectors. They discussed the challenges of recognising and preventing retaliation against whistleblowers and identified potential solutions, including innovative ideas which employers are already deploying in practice. These discussions provided a bedrock of research for the guide. Conversations with whistleblowing stakeholders also generated case studies of initiatives which are currently in place in different organisations, which have been incorporated into the guide.    

The guide explores some of the forms which victimisation can take, and looks at practical steps that can be implemented at each stage of the whistleblowing process to try and prevent this. This includes long-term measures aimed at establishing a culture where workers feel confident speaking up without fear of retaliation. It explores concrete measures which can be put in place when a member of staff comes forward with concerns, including completing a risk assessment and taking mitigating action accordingly. The guide contains an example risk assessment based on a document currently in use in one large organisation.  

It won’t always be possible to prevent the victimisation of whistleblowers, and it is crucial that an organisation has mechanisms in place to respond if this does happen – this includes ensuring there are ways of reporting retaliation and having systems in place to deal with this. The guide looks at the actions which can be taken to deal with victimisation where it arises.  

There are also long-term steps that can be taken to review internal arrangements on preventing victimisation and to share information and learning from this. The guide explores methods for monitoring and reviewing victimisation within an organisation, and reporting internally and externally on these processes.  

Preventing victimisation is crucial to maintaining a healthy speak up culture, and benefits both staff and employers. We hope that this guide will provide practical ways of putting this into action and help to create conditions where people can feel confident to speak up with fear of retaliation. 

You can preorder the guide and book your place at our launch webinar here.