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Knowledge Base » Business » The Role of Whistleblowers in Combatting Bribery

The Role of Whistleblowers in Combatting Bribery

Whistleblowers play a crucial role in exposing and preventing bribery, wrongdoing or other offences in the workplace and other organisations. The wrongdoing that a whistleblower reports must be considered to be in the public interest

There are a variety of motivations that may make an individual decide to blow the whistle, including personal morals or ethics. As speaking out can place whistleblowers at risk, there are some protections given to them under UK law.

The role of whistleblowers in bribery prevention is fundamental, as the information they provide exposes malpractices that may otherwise go undetected and unpunished. The potential threat of whistleblowing may also serve as a deterrent for potential bribery incidents, making people think twice about offering or accepting a bribe.

Understanding whistleblowing

Whistleblowing refers to the act of disclosing information about wrongdoings, such as bribery or corruption, to:

  1. a higher authority 
  2. the general public

Initially, at work, a person may try to speak to their employer about bribery and corruption, assuming their employer is not the one implicated. Most businesses will have a Whistleblowing Policy that outlines company procedures.

If this course of conduct is ineffective or inappropriate, you can consider speaking to a prescribed body or person, or getting expert legal advice from a lawyer. Some whistleblowers circumvent official channels due to their desire to get the word out immediately; often they will approach the media or even release public information themselves. A famous case of this is Julian Assange and his notorious WikiLeaks scandal. 

It is important to note, that if a whistleblower does not follow the correct channels and goes straight to the media, they may not be afforded full legal protection. They may additionally be made to prove that they reasonably thought that what they were saying was accurate and true.

In addition to bribery, whistleblowers may also expose other types of wrongdoing such as serious sexual misconduct within an organisation or significant health and safety breaches.

Other complaints that may form the basis of a whistleblowing case include:

  • A criminal offence of some kind
  • A miscarriage of justice
  • Risk or damage to the environment
  • A company is breaking the law (for example is acting without the correct insurance or permits)
  • Someone (usually in authority) is covering up wrongdoing

A personal grievance, including bullying and harassment, does not count as whistleblowing, unless you can somehow demonstrate exposing it to be in the public interest. 

The potential for a whistleblower to come out and disclose information may make organisations rethink their use of illegal or unethical practices and if not, revealing these secrets aims to hold organisations and individuals accountable for their actions.

The act of whistleblowing is an important tool for maintaining transparency and promoting accountability, particularly in the business world. 

Corruption in the workplace

The motivation to blow the whistle

Whistleblowers may be driven by various motivations, such as:

    • A sense of justice
    • Personal ethics
    • Concerns about public safety

Whistleblowers often face moral and ethical dilemmas and have to weigh up the potential consequences of their actions against the need to reveal corruption. Despite the risks involved, many whistleblowers ultimately choose to speak out, driven by their commitment to upholding the values of honesty, integrity and transparency.

Occasionally, people choose to blow the whistle and expose wrongdoing due to a personal vendetta. This means that although they are providing valuable information about unethical practices, they may not have been motivated by completely benign intentions. This doesn’t usually affect the outcome of their whistleblowing, providing there is adequate evidence that what they allege is true.

In the case of bribery, a whistleblower may feel motivated to act because bribery usually involves an abuse of power or a breach of trust. To understand the potential motivations of people who act as whistleblowers about bribery, we first need to understand exactly what bribery is and why it is a bad thing in business.

Bribery does not have a singular, accepted definition. It is widely regarded as giving someone an incentive (financial or otherwise) to perform (or agree to perform) their functions or role in a way that is improper or unfair. It could also be given to reward them for having already done so. 

Acts of bribery can be split into two distinct categories:

  • Active bribery
  • Passive bribery

When an individual offers, promises or provides a bribe, this is called active bribery. 

When an individual requests, takes or accepts a bribe, this is called passive bribery.

Whistleblowers may seek to expose cases of both active and passive bribery that they witness at work.

An example of bribery might be:

A public official is bribed (with money or gifts) in order to:

  • Ensure that the briber wins a contract or gets planning permission for a project
  • Overlooks failings and awards a licence or certificate to the briber
  • Falsifies an inspection report in the briber’s favour

If an individual (usually an employee of the organisation but not always) decided to gather evidence about any of the above misconducts and then disclose them to a regulatory body or the public, this would be an act of whistleblowing

When bribery happens at work it exacerbates inequality and can foster a culture where rewards are not based on skill or effort. Bribery can mean the wrong people are in power, corners get cut and standards start to slip.

The impact of whistleblowing

There have been some headline grabbing cases of whistleblowing over the years that have exposed many different types of misconduct:

  1. #metoo – The mass whistleblower event that became prominent in 2017, known as the #metoo movement, exposed the widespread sexual abuse and misconduct in the Hollywood film industry and was instrumental in the prosecution of film producer Harvey Weinstein for sex crimes. It also inspired countless other women to come forward and share their experiences of sexual harassment and abuse in the workplace. 

This movement is seen as a catalyst for change and triggered a surge in companies investing in systems to protect their staff and help them to flag up illegal or concerning behaviour. 

  1. Barclays bank – In 2018, former Barclays CEO Jes Staley was fined £642,430 and forced to repay £500,000 of his bonus after he attempted to unmask a whistleblower. Authorities punished Staley with such large fines to send a message that whistleblowers had the legal right to remain anonymous and feel safe after disclosing their concerns.
  2. £3 million payout – the British Medical Association (BMA) recently secured the largest ever compensation settlement of more than £3 million, on behalf of a doctor who was unfairly dismissed for whistleblowing early on in the pandemic, after she raised serious concerns about patient safety and governance matters. 

Whistleblowing can play a key role in holding businesses, organisations and individuals accountable for their actions, regardless of how rich or powerful they are.

By exposing bribery and corruption, whistleblowers help to safeguard public resources, ensure fair competition and protect the rights and interests of citizens. In some cases, the actions of whistleblowers have led to regulatory reform and positive change.

Legal protections for whistleblowers

Laws relating to whistleblowing are found in the Employment Rights Act 1996 and the Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998.

Workers are protected if they become whistleblowers, meaning that they usually cannot lose their jobs as a result of making a disclosure. If employees are victimised at work due to whistleblowing, they may be able to receive financial compensation.

The protection offered by these laws strengthens the position of whistleblowers, enabling them to be more confident and secure in their roles as informants.

Man being bribed at work

Reporting channels and confidentiality

Workplaces should have both an:

  • Anti Bribery Policy
  • Whistleblower Policy

These should outline your organisation’s standards or practice and duty of care in regard to both bribery and whistleblowing. Having access to these policies can help employees understand if their concerns are legitimate and how to report them.

Workers are often advised to report concerns in-house initially. If they do not feel believed or if organisational corruption is so widespread that no action is taken, whistleblowers can escalate up the chain of command.

This could mean speaking to:

  • Your CEO
  • A governing or regulatory body
  • An official (such as your MP)
  • A lawyer
  • The media

Remember that you must find out who the correct prescribed person is; so if, for example, you are whistleblowing about bribery that you have witnessed in the care sector, you should contact the Care Quality Commission (CQC). 

You have the right to make your disclosure anonymously and for your name and other information to be kept confidential. You must notify whoever you make the disclosure to that you do not want it to be made known who raised the concern. 

It is understandable that whistleblowers want anonymity and confidentiality as they may be worried about their personal safety, professional reputation or being implicated in a controversy. Your employer or other prescribed body should take every step necessary to protect your identity. 

Challenges faced by whistleblowers

Whistleblowers may fear coming forward due to:

  • Losing their job
  • Backlash and reprisal
  • Personal safety concerns

In companies that do not have clear guidelines in place, whistleblowers may also struggle to understand how to address their concerns or who they should go to. 

Additionally, whistleblowers may feel that their loyalties are torn, particularly if they are exposing bribery and corruption within an organisation that they have been part of for a long time. Making a disclosure represents immense personal and professional sacrifice for some whistleblowers.

People may face additional challenges:

  • Getting people to take them seriously
  • Collating and organising all of the evidence they need to prove their case
  • Getting support from others
  • Collecting any supplementary information that is required (especially if they are trying to act covertly)

Whistleblower rewards and incentives

Providing a reward for whistleblowing is not common practice in the UK. Currently only the USA and South Korea use advanced rewards systems to compensate whistleblowers. The idea of a reward for whistleblowing usually works on the framework that the individual who put themselves at risk by making the disclosure should receive a portion of the fine imposed on the person or organisation who broke the law.

Currently, the only organisations that offer compensation to whistleblowers are the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) who offer up to £100,000 in rewards for whistleblowers who report illegal cartel activity, and HMRC who offer discretionary rewards for people who report tax fraud. 

If you are unfairly treated at work after whistleblowing, rather than getting a reward you can make a claim for compensation. Once you bring a claim under the Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998 at an employment tribunal you can receive an uncapped reward, providing you are able to prove that making a disclosure resulted in dismissal or detriment. This includes:

  • Job loss
  • Damage to your career or reputation
  • Mental or emotional suffering
  • Bullying or harassment

As discussed earlier in the article, in 2022 a doctor received over £3 million after she was treated unfairly after making disclosures about her concern for patient and public safety at the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic. It is important to note that compensation of this magnitude is not routine in whistleblowing cases. 

Corporate responses to whistleblowing

The Bribery Act 2010 outlines guidance for businesses on how to recognise, mitigate and report instances of bribery. 

Companies that have transparency and accountability at their core are more likely to be compliant with the law, less likely to face legal action and will have better reputations than those that choose to look the other way when misconduct, including bribery, happens. 

Whistleblowers play a key role in helping the public discern which businesses and organisations they can trust and which are worth further scrutiny. 

If corporations want to operate with integrity, they should respond to whistleblowing by:

  • Recognising the value that their workforce can offer in seeing and exposing bribery and corruption
  • Creating a positive culture with an open-door policy, where workers feel safe to make disclosures
  • Working with their employees and external bodies to tackle all incidents of bribery or misconduct
  • Leading by example and being present in the day-to-day operations to spot any wrongdoings or discrepancies
  • Having adequate policy, training and controls in place to deal with whistleblowing disclosures involving bribery, corruption and illegal actions
  • Listening to concerns, knowing how to respond and investigate, to mitigate the disclosure being escalated further up the chain

Overall, rather than penalising a whistleblower, corporations should recognise the power that they have to effect positive change and root out unethical practices or problematic employees.

The whistleblower’s role in legal proceedings

Whistleblowers can play an important role in legal proceedings that are brought against individuals and organisations that have been accused of behaving in an unlawful or corrupt manner. They may provide crucial testimony and evidence that can help secure a conviction.

When someone is willing to come forward and expose potential wrongdoing, this often inspires others to do the same. Having more witnesses or more people supporting the whistleblower’s account can significantly strengthen a legal case.

Man being corrupted at work

The ethical imperative of whistleblowing

Encouraging the disclosure of malpractice and dealing with it effectively promotes a culture of:

  • Honesty
  • Integrity
  • Trust
  • Responsibility
  • Equity
  • Accountability

All organisations should investigate whistleblowing disclosures:

  • In a timely manner
  • Seriously
  • Confidentially

To complement good ethics, businesses need a consistent approach, a Whistleblowing Policy and good record-keeping. Proper management and investigative and administrative systems show compliance and a professional commitment to rooting out corruption. 

Understanding what is and isn’t okay and how to recognise misconduct, including bribery, can help us all to be more vigilant and more empowered. Sometimes it just takes the actions of one person against a corporate entity to make all the difference, and it is important that we value and support individuals who are willing to blow the whistle in the name of public interest. 


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About the author

Vicky Miller

Vicky Miller

Vicky has a BA Hons Degree in Professional Writing. She has spent several years creating B2B content and writing informative articles and online guides for clients within the fields of sustainability, corporate social responsibility, recruitment, education and training. Outside of work she enjoys yoga, world cinema and listening to fiction podcasts.

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