Guest Post: Legal changes and paradigm shifts: what we need to get the benefits of whistleblowing

Greg Lawton, patient & medicines safety, data protection and healthcare policy consultant, contributes to today’s guest post. Greg, who worked for Boots between 2006 and 2015 and in his final role was part of the manpower planning team that assessed staffing levels in the company’s pharmacies, resigned in 2015 after he took his concerns about the inadequate staffing levels to the independent industry regulator.

At night I’d often lie awake, sometimes for hours, going over the issues endlessly in my mind. It was certainly more comfortable to be asleep, a way of escaping the worry of the things I knew. The symptoms were physical, too; one day I woke up and my jaw would temporarily dislocate every time I tried to eat, a sign that the muscles had weakened through overuse. Apparently, I’d been grinding my teeth in my sleep.

But why should trying to make things better for a company I loved be so lonely and anxious?

And importantly for this article, why should a company care how difficult it is? Why shouldn’t it be difficult to change the status quo? Doesn’t whistleblowing just get in the way of good business?

I could talk to you about organisations having a moral duty to the people they employ (or contract with) to listen to them, and to act on their concerns. They’re part of the organisation and society, after all – so it’s part of “Corporate Social Responsibility”. But that argument only carries limited weight, in my experience.

Human nature is the reason whistleblowing is tough. If you raise concerns up the chain, people realise they’re responsible for the things you’re raising concerns about. If what you’re saying is right, it could mean they’ve failed in some way – so they take steps to protect themselves, their reputations and careers, which leads to consequences for the whistleblower.

Recent issues in the news – the Gosport Hospital scandal, Facebook’s misuse of personal data and the Grenfell disaster, for example – could have benefitted from whistleblowing being easier and acted upon at an earlier stage. It must become easier for people to do so if we are to prevent such things from happening, or lessen the severity of incidents in the future.

The law certainly needs to change. There’ll always be some organisations that want to flout the rules or suppress whistleblowing, and society should be protected from that. The current whistleblowing law in the UK – the Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998 (PIDA) – merely allows whistleblowers to seek compensation after they’ve already suffered detriment. PIDA offers little consequence to individuals for reprisal against the whistleblower, or suppressing the concerns; whistleblowers can spend years seeking compensation, but ultimately the company pays the fine and the perpetrators may continue their careers unaffected, perhaps blissfully unaware of the legal processes happening behind the scenes. In larger companies, the fines may even be budgeted for and the company may take it all in its stride.

But we also need a paradigm shift. It needs to be recognised that its beneficial to organisations to embrace and support whistleblowing. If somebody sees something’s wrong, it should be very easy to change it and put it right at an early stage. That way, you get to the optimal state of affairs easily, and that can only be a good thing for the health of an organisation and its customers, clients or patients.

Stephen Covey said “Always treat your employees exactly as you want them to treat your best customers.” That includes listening to them and having a process for putting things right when they’re wrong. An organisation that treats its staff well when they raise concerns should expect to benefit from the culture it will engender. An effective approach to whistleblowing can mean better insights going from the front line to the board and reduced HR and legal costs, to name just a few examples. Organisations will be acting in their own self-interests to have a good whistleblowing culture.

4 thoughts on “Guest Post: Legal changes and paradigm shifts: what we need to get the benefits of whistleblowing

  1. Thank you so much for your wonderful contribution, Greg.

    I found it very interesting when you mentioned that fines related to whistleblowing are budgeted for. That in itself shows how normalized these issues have become. Instead of being proactive to correct the issues brought to their attention, sparing the corporation both legal expenses and detriment to their reputation, they have prepared themselves to deal with the repercussions in the event their irresponsible actions are outed. This is definitely not the attitude stakeholders seek and this must be changed.

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    1. Thanks Kellisha. I believe that some organisations may budget for fines generally. I can understand larger organisations needing to budget for their projected costs, though in relation to some issues, a target of zero may seem appropriate. I think organisations need to be aware that if they do budget for such things indirectly, for example as part of a higher level budget – perhaps without even realising – it would have the potential to create or permit undesirable behaviours which they’d need to work hard to mitigate against.

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  2. Interesting article Greg. You seem to have identified that human self-preservation plays a major impact on the ability of corporations to ‘listen’ to their employees. Have you ever considered whether this has anything to do with diversity in management? In your experience, would empathy and less testosterone have made any difference? Individuals make up the company and if their ethical and moral standards are non-existent, then the values of the company are also compromised.

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    1. Thanks Lola. That is an interesting question – could diversity of management affect the handling of the whistleblower and/or the outcome? I’d certainly like to see more research done in this area, and some interesting variables could be explored within diversity of management. Some individuals responding to whistleblowers may ordinarily demonstrate decent ethical and moral standards, but perhaps by some they are too readily abandoned (consciously or sub-consciously) in favour of self-preservation. The Milgram experiment provided some fascinating observations in this area.

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