The subject of whistleblowing has gained significant media attention in recent years, thanks largely to high-profile whistleblowers like Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning.

But what exactly is ‘whistleblowing’ – and why have recent high-profile cases caused the word to become not just misunderstood, but viewed as negative, damaging and potentially dangerous?

What is whistleblowing?

Whistleblowing is a term generally used to describe the disclosure of wrongdoing.

In a business context, whistleblowing can occur when an employee or a third-party reports unethical, illegal or illicit behaviour by an individual or group within that organisation.

The whistleblowing process

A whistleblower will typically share their concerns with one or more of the following:

  1. a manager or designated colleague within their organisation
  2. an independent third party (like us)
  3. a regulator or governing body (eg. the Care Quality Commission, Financial Conduct Authority, etc.)
  4. the public (via the press or social media)

In instances 1 and 2 listed above, a whistleblowing report will be handled according to that organisation’s whistleblowing policy.

This usually involves the report being passed to a designated person within the organisation for further investigation.

The organisation will then seek to reach an appropriate outcome within a specified time-frame.

In cases where a whistleblower reveals their concerns to the public, the outcomes are far less certain.

Where do the negative connotations of whistleblowing come from?

Its ability to cause ‘damage’

Public declaration of malpractice from a whistleblower can undoubtedly damage share prices, revenues and personal reputations.

High profile revelations can also attract attention from industry regulators, government agencies or even law enforcement.

It has also been argued that such revelations can put others in harm’s way – particularly in circumstances where secrecy is a key feature of the organisation in question.

Media narrative

“Quite often, it pits vulnerable individuals against large organisations with highly effective PR capabilities.”

Because of their destructive potential, whistleblowers that ‘go public’ can be portrayed by the media – or the organisation’s they criticise – as ‘shady’, untrustworthy or misleading.

Quite often, it pits vulnerable individuals against large organisations with highly effective PR capabilities.

Regardless of whether the allegations made have foundation, this can quickly degenerate into a narrative of right and wrong – often coupled by the release of information designed to publicly discredit the whistleblower (and, by association, the claims they have made).

The word itself

Whistleblowing. Let’s be honest: it’s not a word that evokes warmth or positive feelings.

Consciously or subconsciously, it’s a word people might associate with alarm, schoolteachers or sports officials.

Its everyday usage usually relates to the exposure of unpalatable or worrying information – a positive action in itself, but negative in its association.

This is evidenced by organisations choosing to label their whistleblowing programmes and reporting channels with another name (eg. ‘Ethics line’, ‘Speak Up policy’).

The other side of the story

However, depending on the context, it can be completely understandable for a whistleblower to reveal their concerns publicly.

Some whistleblowers resort to this course of action after raising concerns through internal channels but not seeing the outcomes they had hoped for, or expected.

Others choose this direction from the outset in the belief that their revelations are in the immediate public interest, or that their career might be at risk if they speak up internally.

In the most extreme cases, a whistleblower might fear imprisonment or harm to life (a view taken by CIA whistleblower Edward Snowden, who is now living in Russia and seeking asylum elsewhere).

Whistleblowing is legal though, isn’t it?

Whistleblowing laws vary significantly across the world and some countries provide specific protection for whistleblowers.

The United Kingdom

In the UK, for example, workers are protected from being treated unfairly or dismissed from their job if they make a disclosure about:

  • a criminal offence
  • risk of damage to the environment
  • health and safety risks
  • a cover up of wrongdoing
  • breach of the law
  • miscarriage of justice

Other complaints such as bullying, harassment and discrimination aren’t covered by UK whistleblowing law.

The law also offers less protection to those who report their concern to the media, rather than their employer or prescribed person or body.

The global picture

“Cultural factors in some countries prevent employees from coming forward to raise their concerns.”

Many whistleblowers around the world don’t enjoy the protection they are afforded in the UK.

A 2014 report from Transparency International (Australia) said that despite commitments made by G20 countries to improve their whistleblower protections laws, ‘many G20 countries still fail to meet international standards’.

Those cited included Argentina, Brazil, Germany, India, Indonesia, Italy, Mexico, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Turkey.

Even with legislative changes, cultural factors in some countries prevent employees from coming forward to raise their concerns.

Creating a positive perception of whistleblowing

Whistleblowers continue to face a difficult environment. But things are changing.

The continuing emergence of new whistleblower revelations, coupled with high-profile corporate scandals, has fuelled a growing global debate about business ethics and corporate responsibility.

At the same time, those in positions of authority are under greater scrutiny than ever before.

This has begun to shift the conversation towards transparency and accountability, and the tools and strategies that can help underpin those values.

In the last 12 months, new whistleblowing legislation has been introduced in The Netherlands while financial institutions in Italy, the UK and Germany have also become subject to new rules. In January 2017 Sweden will join the those introducing new whistleblowing laws designed to protect the whistleblower.

As the debate grows louder, there’s real hope that the perception of whistleblowing will continue to evolve into something predominantly positive; a force for openness, honesty and accountability.

Find out which issues have been uncovered through our hotline