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Whistleblowing is an increasingly common occurrence in the UK, and it can affect businesses of every size. But what is a whistleblowing policy and why might you need one for your business?
Whether you’re a startup or a growing organisation, it’s important you understand the legal position for whistleblowers, and how to respond if it happens in your company.
A whistleblower is a worker who passes on information about a company’s wrongdoing to the company, or ultimately a third party. The act of passing on that information is known as “blowing the whistle” or “making a disclosure.”
Whistleblowers are protected by law, under the Employment Rights Act (1996) and the amendments made in the Public Interest Disclosure Act (1998). To get that protection, the worker must reasonably believe that they're acting in the public interest – personal grievances are rarely covered under whistleblowing law.
They also need to believe the information they're disclosing shows past, present, or future wrongdoing in one or more of the following categories:
A complaint can be about anything – but for a complaint to amount to whistleblowing, the employee must disclose information that shows wrongdoing within the company.
A whistleblower can't be treated in a way that's harmful, or dismissed for making a disclosure. If an employee can show that they've been treated unfairly for whistleblowing, they'll have grounds to make an employment claim and ask for unlimited compensation at an employment tribunal.
A whistleblower's disclosure must also be in the public interest – it can't be a personal complaint, and it must be relevant to your business's sector at large.
If a whistleblower’s disclosure fulfills the requirements above, the worker can make a claim in an employment tribunal following either dismissal or poor treatment by the employer.
Generally speaking, a disclosure must be made to an appropriate party within the company. Disclosures to the media may only be protected if, for example, there's no such appropriate party, or the party who they made the disclosure to didn't offer a reasonable response. There's a government list of bodies and individuals that whistleblowers may reasonably approach, if the company doesn't address their concerns. This was drawn up in collaboration with the Whistleblowing Commission.
Unlike publicly listed companies, small businesses aren't legally obliged to have their own whistleblowing policies. However, the impact of whistleblowing can be significant for any business, and it’s important that the process is handled properly. A written policy can help you do this.
A published whistleblowing policy can demonstrate to workers that you're genuine in your commitment to hearing their concerns, and that information will be taken seriously when presented to management. A whistleblowing policy shouldn't exist to discourage employees from making a disclosure – instead, it should help to manage the situation as calmly as possible for everyone involved.
It's worth noting that some sectors have specific rules on whistleblowing. Businesses regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) or Prudential Regulation Authority (PRA), for example, must abide by stricter rules.
A whistleblower policy can form the basis of your approach to whistleblowing in your business. It includes the following:
Just having a whistleblowing template isn’t enough – you also need to make sure your workers know about it. Just as importantly, they need to be confident that the policy will be stuck to and implemented if there's a disclosure.
To achieve this, it’s important that all line managers receive proper training on the policy. They should know how to resolve disclosures in a way that both fulfills your legal obligations and minimises damage to the company. Anyone in a position to receive disclosures should ensure that they take every action seriously, and that they are thoroughly and impartially investigated. If a concern is found to be valid, it’s important that the business takes action to remedy it. Finally, the whistleblower should be kept in the loop throughout the process.
A whistleblowing policy can provide guidance and a solid process to follow so that you're clear on how you should handle the situation.
It goes without saying, but you should handle the situation calmly, with as little external attention as possible. A badly-handled whistleblowing situation can attract a lot more negative publicity than other types of complaints.
The worker who made the disclosure should be given the right to speak and take legal advice. The law protects workers who bring important information to the attention of the relevant authorities as it's in the public's interest.
Do you have any unanswered questions about creating a whistleblowing policy for your business? Let us know in the comments below.
Lucy McNeill is a Senior Copy and Content Manager at Simply Business. She’s worked in content for 16 years, primarily within the financial services and travel sectors. Lucy’s passionate about supporting women in small business, having led Simply Business’s Empowering Women in Business initiative for two years running. Lucy also specialises in webinars and virtual events.
We create this content for general information purposes and it should not be taken as advice. Always take professional advice. Read our full disclaimer
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