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Knowledge Base » Business » What is a Whistle-blower?

What is a Whistle-blower?

Last updated on 18th April 2023

A whistle-blower is a person, usually an employee, who exposes something within a private, public or government organisation that is unsafe, illegal, abuse of tax-payer funds or fraud. This is usually called “making a disclosure” or “blowing the whistle”. The wrongdoing will typically, although not always, be something that has been witnessed at work. This can be done by reporting it internally or externally.

If concerns are being reported internally then this could be done through a supervisor, human resources or a neutral third party within the company. This gives the company the opportunity to address the issues. If concerns are being reported externally, this could be done through a third party outside of the organisation, for example the media, government or police.

The wrongdoing you disclose must be in the public interest, therefore it must affect others, for example the general public. This means that the concern must have an impact that is wider than one employee’s personal circumstances.

Concerns that count as whistle-blowing are:

  • A criminal offence.
  • Fraud.
  • Someone’s health and safety are in danger.
  • Risk or actual damage to the environment.
  • A miscarriage of justice.
  • The company is breaking the law.
  • You believe someone is covering up wrongdoing.

Personal grievances, for example bullying, harassment or discrimination, do not count as whistle-blowing.

You can raise your concern at any time – about an incident that happened in the past, something that is happening now or something that you believe will happen in the future. Whistle-blowing law is located in the Employment Rights Act 1996 (amended by the Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998).

It provides the right for a worker to take a case to an employment tribunal if they have been victimised at work or they have lost their job because they have blown the whistle.

An employee noticed a wrongdoing in the business

What is a whistle-blower policy?

As a whistle-blower you are protected by law, you should not lose your job or be treated unfairly. You should be protected if you’re a worker.

This includes:

  • An employee.
  • A trainee, for example a student.
  • An agency worker.
  • A member of a limited liability partnership (LLP).

If you’re unsure about whether you’re protected, you can get some independent advice, for example from citizens advice. If you believe that you have been treated unfairly as a result of blowing the whistle you can take your case to an employment tribunal.

Policies around whistle-blowing will vary depending upon the nature and size of the organisation. Whistle-blowing procedures should be easy to understand, simple and clear for employees. A large organisation may have a policy where employees can contact their manager or a team who are trained in whistle-blowing procedures.

Organisations that have strong, clear policies to encourage whistle-blowers and those that have the ability to support them, can show that they are improving by learning lessons from what they find. The willingness to examine areas of weakness and listen to staff, means organisations can address issues and concerns early on. These organisations can usually avoid negative publicity as they can demonstrate that they are making positive changes.

If an organisation hasn’t created an open and supportive culture, the worker may not feel comfortable making a disclosure. A whistle-blower may fear consequences or that no action will be taken. An organisation should implement training, mentoring and advice to ensure workers can easily approach a range of people within the organisation. It is in the organisation’s best interest to address a whistle-blowing disclosure promptly.

A whistle-blowing policy should help to explain the benefits of making a disclosure. There are benefits to an organisation if a worker makes the disclosure internally rather than going to a third party externally. Although the law does not require employers to have a whistle-blowing policy in place, a policy will show a commitment to listening to employees and provide many other benefits for both the organisation and the employees.

The main criteria to be included in a good whistle-blower policy are:

  • Commitment to clarity and tone from the top.
  • Addressing concerns and providing feedback.
  • Openness, clarity and anonymity.
  • Offering an alternative to line management.
  • Access to independent advice.
  • Whistle-blowing to external bodies.
  • Reassuring potential whistle-blowers.

An organisation may choose to publicise their policy through the intranet or a staff newsletter, for example. It may also be included in induction packs for new staff, promotional posters could be used throughout the staff buildings and staff training sessions could be held to discuss the whistle-blowing policy.

Taking these steps will ensure that staff feel confident in raising concerns and are reassured that any concerns raised will be taken seriously.

When someone blows the whistle, the organisation should explain its procedures for making a disclosure and whether the whistle-blower can expect to receive any feedback and whether they can expect to be able to influence the action the organisation may take. There should be clear and prompt communication between the whistle-blower and the organisation.

It is best practice for organisations to provide feedback to whistle-blowers so that they understand how their disclosure has been dealt with, and what changes are being made. If a whistle-blower is unhappy it may make it more likely that they take their complaint externally. It is good practice to hold a meeting with the person making the disclosure in order to gather all of the relevant information. In some case this may be enough, in other cases where the concerns are more serious, there may need to be a more formal investigation.

Whistle-blower realises she made a misjudgement

What happens if a whistle-blower is wrong or lying?

If an investigation finds that a disclosure was untrue, this does not automatically mean that the person was lying or being malicious.

If you know or strongly suspect that something is occurring at work which is unethical or illegal, and you want to disclose this, the law can provide protection for you. Sometimes a whistle-blower can be wrong, however, the worker only has to have a reasonable belief that wrongdoing has happened or will happen. They should still be protected from victimisation and dismissal even if it turns out they are mistaken. There should be no further action against a whistle-blower if their accusation was founded on a reasonable cause.

If you are found to have raised your concerns for an ulterior motive such as revenge or for financial gain, then you may not have the same protection by law.

Even if your company policy is that you should raise your concerns verbally, it’s a good idea to also put your concerns in writing, and follow up your conversation with a letter or an email. This ensures you have a record of what you have said, when you have said it and to who.

If the whistle-blower is found to be lying or has done this in bad faith then further disciplinary action can be taken by the organisation. If the false allegation was very serious and damaging, other affected parties could bring a civil claim against the individual, but this would be rare.

What is a whistle-blower case?

Whistle-blower cases are lawsuits against companies that make specific claims of fraud and misconduct which has caused the government to lose money. A whistle-blower case can come as the result of a formal submission or complaint that exposes or describes certain types of fraud or misconduct.

You do not need to have witnessed the fraud or misconduct, but you must have specific evidence. Suspicion or belief is not enough to bring a whistle-blower law case. A lawyer experienced in whistle-blower law can help you evaluate the evidence you have and, if you have a case, can help you identify and gather additional evidence while protecting your rights.

What is a whistle-blower complaint?

A grievance is making a complaint about something which affects you or your individual employment contract. This may be something you believe has been done to you, for example bullying or harassment or being overworked or not paid correctly.

Whistle-blowing complaints differ in that they focus on conduct prohibited by a specific law or conduct which may cause damage to public safety. The wrongdoing must affect others, for example the wider public, and not just yourself. Depending upon the nature of the concerns you have, you may take your complaint to the government or law enforcement.

Businessman hiding money in other accounts

What is a tax whistle-blower?

Individuals are now better protected by the law when disclosing tax avoidance behaviour or other tax issues. Whistle-blowing is an important part of tax recovery as the self-assessment model means that without whistle-blowing, tax evasion would be unlikely to be uncovered. In 2017/2018 the difference between the tax that should have been paid to the HMRC and what was actually paid was £35 billion.

You can report someone to HM Revenue and Customs if you think they are evading tax. This may be because they are:

  • Not declaring the tax they owe.
  • Dealing in cash and not giving receipts.
  • Hiding money, shares or other assets in an offshore bank account.

You can report this tax evasion on the government website.

What is a whistle-blower in childcare?

In all childcare settings, the thing of paramount importance is safeguarding children. The NSPCC defines safeguarding as “the action that is taken to promote the welfare of children and protect them from harm”. To read more about the definition of safeguarding children please see our knowledge base.

A whistle-blower in a childcare setting is when a professional has concerns about how child protection issues are being handled within their own or a different organisation. If you have any concerns about a child in your workplace you should raise this with your employer or organisational safeguarding lead in the first instance.

However, you may consider taking things further if:

  • Your organisation doesn’t have clear safeguarding procedures to follow.
  • You think your concern won’t be dealt with properly or may be covered up.
  • You’ve raised a concern but it hasn’t been acted upon.
  • You’re worried about being treated unfairly.

You can access further advice from the NSPCC about their whistle-blower advice line.

Whistle-blower in healthcare protecting patients

What is a whistle-blower in healthcare?

Healthcare workers have a professional duty to raise concerns if they believe that patients’ or clients’ safety is at risk or their care is being compromised. You may work for the NHS and be concerned about the care that a patient is getting, unsafe work practices or lack of care by other professionals. Generally you should firstly raise a complaint with your line manager or more senior manager, and there will be guidance in your workplace and from your professional body about what to do.

Most organisations will have a whistle-blowing policy which will tell you how to raise concerns. Human Resources will be able to show you this policy and the policy will usually be able to give you the name of a specific person for you to speak to.

Healthcare has seen a particular focus on whistle-blowing as a force for change. It is an important way of shining a light on concerns. It helps a workplace to be open, transparent and accountable, to be able to learn from practice, prevent future concerns and protect the public. Whistle-blowing is of particular importance in healthcare given the scale of harm that could be done to patients through malpractice.

If you have concerns, this online tool provided by the NHS can help you to decide the best path for you to raise this.

The NHS have a Freedom to Speak Up: Whistle Blowing Policy. The policy contributes to the need to develop a more open and supportive culture that encourages staff to raise any issues of patient care, quality and safety. All NHS organisations in England must adopt this policy as a minimum standard to help normalise raising concerns for the benefit of all patients.

What is a whistle-blower in governement?

If someone working in government has a concern about something which is happening within the government which is in the public interest to disclose then this must be disclosed. This may be that a criminal offence has been committed, fraudulent activity of some kind or it may be that the health and safety of the general public is in jeopardy.

The constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010 confirmed in legislation that there should be a civil service code. The civil service code outlines the core values of the civil service. These being integrity, honesty, objectivity and impartiality. It sets out the standards of behaviour expected of civil servants, and the duties of civil service employers.

Civil servants who feel that they are being required to act in a way which conflicts with the code, or where they are aware of the actions of others that conflict with the code, should raise a concern and report this immediately within their department. If a civil servant raises a concern and is not satisfied with the response then the civil servant should contact the Independent Civil Service Commission for further advice.

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About the author

Claire Vain

Claire Vain

Claire graduated with a degree in Social Work in 2010. She is currently enjoying her career moving in a different direction, working as a professional writer and editor. Outside of work Claire loves to travel, spend time with her family and two dogs and she practices yoga at every opportunity!

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