November 12, 2013, by ICCSR

Are you a whistleblower?

I was invited to give an introduction to whistleblowing by the ICCSR before a screening of the film We Steal Secrets. I was keen to talk to people about the experience of whistleblowing from the Public Concern at Work (PCaW) perspective. PCaW is a UK based charity that provides advice to individuals who have witnessed wrongdoing in the workplace and are unsure how or whether to raise their concern. The people we speak to are teachers, nurses, bankers and social workers, to name but a few. These individuals are worried about abuse of vulnerable people, fraud or poor clinical practice that may effect any one of us.

Public Concern at Work was set up after a series of tragedies in the 1980s, from the sinking of the Herald of Free Enterprise to the Piper Alpha explosion, demonstrated that staff had known of the problems and had been either too scared to speak up or spoken to the wrong person. There was a clear need to support workers in this difficult position. Recent scandals in the UK such as the abuse of vulnerable adults at Winterbourne view or the 1200-1500 deaths at Mid-Staffordshire NHS have demonstrated that workers need support more than ever.

The film highlights the dilemma faced by whistleblower Bradley Manning and his increasing outrage at what he was seeing, coupled with his conviction that these matters should be in the public domain. His situation was an unusual one, but the personal dilemma is not.

However why do some individuals make the difficult decision to speak up when they think it will not be welcome? How many of us have had a serious concern in the workplace? How many of us believe we would speak up to avert or limit harm? It is likely that many of us think that we would. However when we examined the information we receive from whistleblowers day in day out, in 50% of cases in the care sector where there were other witnesses, they would not speak up. In finance the situation is starkly worse with most individuals believing that they are the only person to have spoken up.

Very few wish to speak up if their voice will not count. People speak up because they believe it will effect change. In a recent YouGov survey commissioned by Public Concern at Work 1 in 10 workers said they have had a concern about serious malpractice. Yet 1 in 3 of those felt unable to speak up, mainly due to fear of reprisal or that nothing would be done. What this highlights is whistleblowing is a mainstream issue that there is a good chance will affect all of us at some point in our working career.

It is this area where the role of every individual is key. I see two very personal challenges in this context. First the gap between our own conceptions of how ethical we think we are and how we would respond if we witnessed wrongdoing. Would we be led by those around us? Consumed by the risk of rocking the boat or compromising our own position. Or would you speak up and follow your own morality no matter what the surrounding norms or risk?

Secondly, how we respond to criticism ourselves and those that might ask the awkward question or press a painful truth.

By Francesca West, Policy Director Public Concern at Work

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