Many UK firms are exposing themselves to legal risk by failing to give formal training to employees handling whistleblowing concerns.
More than four in 10 (42%) employees tasked with handling whistleblowing complaints have learned to do so through experience, self-teaching, or have had to do so without any experience at all, according to research by Whistleblowing hotline company Safecall.
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It found UK employees’ confidence in their whistleblowing routes was low, with only a minority of employees (43%) feeling safe to report wrongdoing within their organisation.
“The results are clear-cut,” said Joanna Lewis, Safecall’s managing director.
She told HR magazine that the whistleblowing process could be extremely difficult to handle, especially for those attempting to handle these often complex and emotional situations without experience.
She said: “There are potential risks both in knowing what to do in the first place, and also, in risking repercussions if the correct legislative process is not followed.”
Confidentiality and anonymity are key areas of concern for investigators, according to Ann Bevitt, partner at law firm Cooley.
She said: “Investigators should ensure that, whenever possible, investigations are confidential and that the whistleblower’s identity is kept confidential if they request this, unless there is an overriding reason to disclose it.
“Investigators should also be trained on handling anonymous reports which present unique challenges, given the impossibility of obtaining further information from the whistleblower to help with the investigation.”
Mistakes can be costly, she added: “Not getting issues such as confidentiality and anonymity right can result in not only staff making external disclosures to regulators, the media or the police but also significant sanctions: in 2018 the CEO of Barclays was fined £642,340 by the FCA for trying to identify a whistleblower.”
The fact that 74.3% of respondents could not be certain that whistleblowers were confident in reporting wrongdoing because of fear of retaliation should sound alarm bells, Lewis added.
She said: “It indicates that much can be done to persuade employees that whistleblowing is safe.”
Bevitt added: “Simply having the policy is not enough. There is no point in encouraging staff to speak up about wrongdoing if they do not know how to report such activity.
“It is also vitally important for all staff, whether they are blowing the whistle themselves or implicated in any reports, to understand that there will be no reprisals for reporting wrongdoing.”