As Protect – the UK’s whistleblowing charity – celebrates its 30th anniversary this year, we’ve been reflecting on the barriers whistleblowers face across all sectors. All whistleblowers have fears that nothing will be done if they raise concerns, or that they will suffer if they do. But individual barriers may vary from person to person, depending on their status in their organisation, their background and personal characteristics.

The NHS was an early adopter of “Speak Up” arrangements, but high-profile examples in recent months – such as the Letby case – are troubling reminders that its not always easy to raise concerns in the health or care sectors. Staff speaking up can find themselves bullied or threatened – including a worrying trend of whistleblowers being reported for misconduct to their professional bodies after  sounding the alarm.

So, are there lessons to learn from good practice elsewhere?  We think so.   

  1. Provide multiple channels for speaking up. If you don’t feel safe speaking up face-to-face to your manager, or even to the Freedom to Speak Up Guardian, then where do you go? Not everyone wants to talk – some people want to raise concerns in writing. Some prefer anonymity. While they are harder to investigate, our experience is that concerns raised anonymously should not be discounted. Offering many different points of contact, and different ways to speak up can lift barriers for some staff.
  1. Speaking up cannot just be left to the Freedom to Speak Up Guardians. While many Freedom to Speak Up guardians do an amazing job, they can only ever be part of the picture, and often lack time and resources to fulfil their roles. Protect’s research confirms that most people speak up in the first instance to their line manager. So, training line managers to be good recipients of what is often bad news is vital.  There’s a small window to get it right.  Poor responses from managers lead to more barriers going up – only around 30% of whistleblowers will raise their concern more than once.
  1. Leaders can model behaviours that they want to encourage. While laws alone can’t create a workplace culture, there may be lessons to learn from the Civil Aviation industry where safety laws predate the UK’s whistleblowing law. Fear of your manager or colleagues blaming or punishing you for speaking up is a real barrier to raising concerns, and conversely when leaders share their own mistakes, barriers can be broken down. In aviation, the safety of aircraft comes first, and it is everyone’s duty to report when things go wrong or they suspect things are about to go wrong. The “Just Culture” in aviation has been developed not with a view to punishing or blaming the wrongdoer, but to ensure that lessons are learned. It isn’t a “no blame” culture but blame and punishment only follow cases of wilful malpractice or gross negligence. Speaking up about safety has become a “no brainer” in aviation, because of the clarity of the message.
  1. Poor behaviour towards whistleblowers needs to be sanctioned. Most policies, across all sectors, will state that victimising a whistleblower has consequences, but how many times are the sanctions carried out? What message do leaders send to staff if those who treat whistleblowers badly continue in post?  We’re pleased to see that accountability of senior managers in the NHS is now under review – and hope that those who suppress whistleblowing or treat a whistleblower badly will have their fitness to be a senior health service leader challenged.  This practice is already recognised in financial services. The Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) rules make clear that they take seriously any evidence that a firm they regulate had victimised a whistleblower, and that anyone found to do so may face serious consequences.
  1. Regulators can help lift barriers too.  Staff in the health and care sector understand the value of speaking up about patient safety, and we’re grateful that so many do. But if the Trust isn’t listening, then the regulator needs to be involved. Good organisations encourage their staff to consider where they might raise concerns if their own employer’s response is inadequate. But for many, going to a regulator can be a big step. Today in the health sector there are a great many regulators who can investigate concerns whether it is about fraud, unsafe working conditions or patient safety.  But regulators can’t look into the victimisation of a whistleblower, so there is an accountability gap. We would like to see NHS regulators adopting the FCA’s approach – that treating whistleblowers badly could itself lead to regulatory intervention. In our view, when staff report whistleblower victimisation this shouldn’t just be seen as an individual employment matter, it should be a clear indicator of an unsafe working culture. 
  1. Keep the door open – raising a concern should never be futile. Often it is the newest member of an organisation who identifies ingrained problems or even toxic work cultures that have emerged. But if they raise a concern to their manager – or even a leader – and receive the response “that’s just how it is,” that creates a new barrier. Overworked and under pressure, staff who are constantly told there are no more resources may stop asking. Staff who are told that poor behaviours must be excused may stop challenging.  The messages staff receive and absorb can be barriers to speaking up. 

Good organisations explain what they can, and can’t, do about concerns raised and always treat those raising them with respect. Even if a concern can’t be immediately addressed, it might provide vital intelligence to build a case for change. An open-door policy to those reporting concerns, thanking staff and providing feedback are all going to make it easier to report next time.