What is whistleblowing? Whistleblowing is the term used when a person passes on information concerning wrongdoing, such as corruption, sexual harassment... This can be referred to as "blowing the whistle", "making a disclosure", "making a whistleblowing report", or otherwise. The person is usually closely associated with the organisation, often an employee, but also sometimes a supplier or a customer. They become a whistleblower when they observe behaviour or actions that they believe to be misconduct, illegal and not in line with the company's Code of Conduct, and report that suspicion as a whistleblowing matter.
Whistleblowing can take place either within an organisation, or publicly.
Organisational whistleblowing: is a preventive tool for organisations to reduce the risks of malpractice and irregularities. Empowering employees and other relevant stakeholders to blow the whistle increases the chances of managers obtaining information on irregularities that should be acted upon at an early stage. Organisations that take their Code of Conduct seriously will therefore put in place mechanisms to enable organisational whistleblowing, such as a secure corporate whistleblowing system or hotline and a whistleblowing policy or guidelines.
Public whistleblowing: In organisations where trust is low, the above mechanisms are not in place, or there is no possibility to be an anonymous whistleblower, the person may be more inclined to blow the whistle publicly. This may include reporting to the police, media or through online social channels, which of course brings a greater risk of reputational damage for organisations. In some instances, though, there is a duty to blow the whistle to a professional body or regulator.
So, what counts as a whistleblowing complaint?
Perspectives vary from organisation to organisation, and whistleblower protection laws define whistleblowing cases differently from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. The following list is a UK-based example, but these items are widely considered grounds for whistleblowing.
- a criminal offence, e.g. fraud or corruption
- a person's health and safety is in danger
- risk or actual damage to the environment
- a miscarriage of justice
- serious forms of discrimination or harassment
- the company is breaking the law, e.g. does not have the right insurance
- there is suspicion that someone is covering up wrongdoing
Why is whistleblowing currently so in focus?
The rise of whistleblowing started with the 2007-08 global financial crisis, which re-awakened the world to the need for a crackdown on corporate corruption. Further, in the last two years, the #Metoo campaign has completely changed how whistleblowers are viewed; from troublemakers to heroes.
Consequently we have seen a sharpened focus on anti-corruption and greater pressure on organisations to give employees a voice. At the same time, more and more governments are putting in place whistleblowing laws that in some cases mandate the implementation of whistleblowing systems, in other cases, enhance whistleblower protection. As a result, organisations are increasingly choosing to set up whistleblowing channels to better manage issues internally and to ensure compliance.
The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.