How diversity can impact whistleblowing

1st September 2023

Article by Meg Shona Halpin-Webster, Graduate eLearning Content Writer at Marshall E-Learning Consultancy, a Ciphr company

Whistleblowing is currently at the forefront of conversations, following the latest news headlines such as the British Museum whistleblowing scandal. At the heart of these conversations is the value of whistleblowing, and the negative impact that a toxic work culture and environment can have on individuals that are uncomfortable raising concerns, or are unable to do so safely. Data from 2023 suggests that fewer than 50% of general hospital staff believe that that their employer would act on a concern they raised– indicating that whistleblowing policies must be strengthened across many industries.

But many of these discussions overlook the significant role that diversity can play in whistleblowing and the positive impact that fostering an inclusive and supportive workplace culture can have on making individuals feel comfortable and secure enough to raise their concerns.

Marshalls is committed to promoting and cultivating the prioritisation of diverse and inclusive environments through educational diversity e-learning courses. We are passionate about guiding organisations and institutions to better themselves and improve their cultures so all employees and students feel supported to voice their concerns, which is why we want to shed light on the role that diverse workplace cultures have in whistleblowing.

What is whistleblowing and why is it important?

Whistleblowing, also often referred to as raising a Public Interest Disclosure (PID), is when an individual reports any concerns or wrongdoing that they perceive as dangerous, against the law or in breech of ethical and professional codes within their organisation. Any activity that is suspected to be criminal, fraudulent, unethical, damaging to the environment or dismissive of health and safety can be reported as a PID.

Whistleblowing is an important action to prevent fraud, illegal behaviour and unethical activity from taking place within an organisation. For this reason, whistleblowing policies are essential to ensure that employees (and students), feel that it is acceptable for them to voice their concerns. Without an effective whistleblowing policy, individuals may not feel comfortable to raise a PID for fear that they are putting their reputation, job security and safety at risk. A study released by SafeCall in 2022 to coincide with World Whistleblowing Day found that 80% of individuals, and 70% of organisations, say that the fear of legal consequences is the biggest reason behind choosing not to report wrongdoing. A further 53% of UK workers believe that their colleagues are discouraged from whistleblowing by concerns that it might harm their reputation or future career prospects. These figures demonstrate a significant lack of awareness of the protections in place for those who come forward to report wrongdoing, and emphasise the large gap across whistleblowing policies that omit key information about the legality of whistleblowing.

As the reportable concerns pose extremely serious threats to an organisation, and its reputation, it’s in the best interest of an organisation to proactively improve their internal culture and provide their employees and/or students with support and knowledge of whistleblowing.

Who can raise a Public Interest Disclosure and what are the protections in place?

PIDs can be raised by:

  • Any employee, including interns, consultants, casual workers and agency workers
  • Students
  • Contractors
  • Officers
  • Lay and board members

As fear of legal consequences is often the reason behind choosing not to report wrongdoing, it’s equally important for all staff members and students to be made aware of the current legal protections in place for whistleblowers.

The Public Interest Disclosure Act of 1998, which was further amended in 2013, is in place to protect any individual that raises a PID in good faith. Being protected under this legislation means that they will not suffer any detriment for their actions, when these actions are taken in good faith. Even if, following an investigation, a disclosure proves to be incorrect, the individual who raised it will not suffer any consequences provided that they firmly believed in the concerns that they raised at the time.

For employees and students to feel confident and safe to report wrongdoing, they need to be made aware of the protections in place to ease their own concerns and worries regarding raising a PID.

The importance of culture in relation to whistleblowing

As mentioned, a diverse, inclusive and supportive culture has a hugely positive impact on whistleblowing. Only 21% of UK workers (according to SafeCall’s study) feel that their workplace actively encourages their employees to speak up about concerns that they have, signifying a gap in the wider workforce culture in relation to whistleblowing support and encouragement. Research for Marshall’s Inclusive Board Leadership white paper from 2022 determined that if employees do not feel confident to challenge or report behaviours that they witness or experience in the workplace, it is likely due to the fact that the environment lacks inclusivity. Cultivating a positive culture for your organisation is critical, not only in relation to whistleblowing, but for productivity and the wellbeing of all within it.

Building an inclusive, welcoming and accepting culture isn’t always an easy task, but here are a few steps you can proactively take to improve the culture of your organisation:

Encourage diversity, but prioritise inclusion

Diversity may not seem directly relevant to the issue of whistleblowing, but it is relevant to the issue of non-inclusive cultures that prevent whistleblowers from coming forward. Diversity is important across all levels of an organisation, from board members to leadership and employees or students, but inclusion is even more important. Inclusion is a priority as just because you have many different identities at all levels within your workforce, it does not necessarily mean that everyone is heard equally. The presence of difference does not necessarily make it as easy for employees with marginalised identities to raise a concern or a dissenting voice, as it will be for an employee from a majority group. For example, if you felt as though you didn’t ‘fit in’ most of the time, and often feel judged for who you are, you are much more unlikely to believe that any concerns you raise will be genuinely listened to. If leadership is diverse in terms of identity, background and thought, and representative of the wider workforce or student body, that representation can encourage those with concerns to come forward through affinity bias – the fact that people are more likely to actively listen and support someone if they consider themselves alike.

Active listening

If an individual comes forward with a PID, or any form of concern, active listening is crucial. This approach requires focusing on the nature of an individual’s concern and paying attention to both verbal and non-verbal cues. Verbal cues to look out for are tone and pitch of voice and speed of delivery, as well as the contents of their concern. Non-verbal cues that are also indicatively important include body language and facial expressions. It’s important for individuals coming forward to feel respected and acknowledged in these instances, with harsh rejections and immediate dismissal leading to many of the news stories in the headlines of late.

“Failure to seek out different perspectives, refusal to hear dissenting voices, and a consequent tendency towards ‘group think’ at the most senior levels, can at best leave organisations in uncomfortable positions, and at worse create serious and potentially life-threatening implications for staff, service users or clients,” says Ann Allcock, Marshalls’ head of diversity, “Time and again we are seeing the importance of active listening, and of inclusive governance and decision-making.”

Communicating whistleblowing policy and protections

Organisations should effectively communicate both the legal protections in place for those that choose to come forward to report wrongdoing, and the details of their whistleblowing policy. Maintaining the awareness of protective legislation is important to ensure that all individuals feel safe, secure and comfortable to raise their concerns. But it’s just as important to have a robust whistleblowing policy in place, and for all employees and students to be aware of it. Organisations can consider regular training, e-learning courses, and webinars as ways to ensure their employees and students are up to date with the latest legislation that is applicable to them, as well as raising awareness of your own whistleblowing policy.

How Marshalls can help you maintain awareness and strengthen your culture

Here at Marshalls, we offer high-quality, engaging and accessible Whistleblowing and Disclosure e-learning courses. Not only do these e-learning training courses offer learners up to date awareness of the latest legislation around whistleblowing, they also guide organisations on how to implement a strong policy and cultivate a positive, inclusive culture.  This course was developed in partnership with Victoria Sena, founder of Cherrybank Consulting and a recognisable expert in regulation, compliance, governance and risk management.

Available both off-the-shelf and as bespoke, customised e-learning courses tailored to your organisation, our whistleblower training for employees is hugely advantageous for both your organisation and those within it. To find out more about our courses and how you can use them, get in touch to determine how we can meet your needs.

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