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Speaking up in public services  

Today we read that the London Fire Brigade has been put into special measures, as a result of a report finding it was misogynist and racist.  Nafir Azal’s Independent Review into the culture at the London Fire Brigade comes hot on the heels of the Casey Review on the Met Police. Both identified serious problems of bullying, racism and harassment. Both found staff unwilling or unable to speak out. Both commissioners have promised urgent action.

What should be on their to-do list? How can organisations tackle engrained cultures? How can public trust in the police and fire fighters be restored? Most suggestions require time and a lot of resources and changing cultures is hard.  However, one key way to improve the reporting, detecting and deterring of unacceptable behaviour is through effective whistleblowing or “speak up” arrangements.

The catch is in “effective”. How do you know it’s working? Simply introducing a system isn’t enough: Afzal’s report found the LFB’s new speak up programme “is not particularly trusted and does not command significant confidence across the Brigade”. Too many firefighters were told by their managers NOT to raise concerns, while others reported managers “turned a blind eye”.  This has a huge chilling effect on the willingness of staff to challenge wrongdoing, with implications that go way beyond bullying of colleagues.

So, what is missing? It is good that leaders in both organisations say they are committed to the culture change that is needed – creating a safe working environment can’t happen without the right tone from the top. But clearly more is also required – the tone from the middle needs addressing. Managers clearly need to be trained to identify and address bullying and harassment of individuals in their teams, and to recognise and address whistleblowing concerns where a wider culture of misogyny, racism or bullying is emerging. It’s also key for the organisation to “walk the talk”. Telling your staff to speak up will only oust you as hypocritical if when they do speak up, you don’t listen. Making the whistleblowers feel heard, investigating their concern and giving feedback on whether, how and why you addressed their concern (even if you can’t go into the details) is key.

At Protect we hear from thousands of whistleblowers a year, across all industries and sectors. Many say that they’ve been treated badly for trying to raise concerns about workplace cultures, others say that their concerns have simply been ignored. Whistleblowing about wrongdoing takes courage, and despite the myth, most whistleblowers are not persistent (our research in the Financial Services sector found only 30% would raise a concern more than once). Managers need to be trained to be good recipients of bad news, to thank those who come forward, and ensure that their concerns are addressed.

Organisations also need to offer whistleblowers a variety of channels to raise concerns outside of their immediate line managers, because too frequently line managers are the wrongdoers. There should be Board oversight of the effectiveness of whistleblowing arrangements, regular communications and training, but also testing of the awareness of staff on how to speak up, and their confidence in doing so.  Our whistleblowing benchmark is a good place to start if you want to test how your organisation does. We look at how your governance, communication and operations address whistleblowing.

At the end of the day, it is crucial that the wrongdoers are identified and rooted out. But just as crucially, behaviour throughout our public services needs to change to create the right culture to speak up and stop harm.

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