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Whistleblowing: speak up in the public interest

Author: ICAEW Insights

Published: 22 Jun 2021

World Whistleblowers’ Day on 23 June is a chance to reflect on the bravery of individuals who chose to do what’s right and expose wrongdoing. The day is particularly poignant for whistleblowers who have chosen to stay anonymous because they can never be thanked in person.

When things go wrong, it is natural to ask why nobody said anything. The origin of the COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent abuse of the government support schemes are extreme examples, but whistleblowing is also a solution to much smaller issues that may only be relevant to a small group or single organisation. 

Regulators often depend upon what they hear from whistleblowers. That’s why BEIS have suggested that auditors are made subject to a new duty to blow the whistle about viability and other serious concerns to the Audit, Reporting and Governance Authority. 

ICAEW published its paper on how whistleblowing helps companies because it wanted company directors to understand how an effective whistleblowing policy will help shield them and their companies from reputational and other risks. The paper covers difficult issues which need to be considered by company boards, for example, feedback to whistleblowers and the rights of the accused.

Company directors may be provided with bare statistics about whistleblowing at their companies, but it can be difficult to know what good looks like, ie whether it’s better to have lots of whistleblowing or none at all. The proportion of whistleblows made anonymously can be a better barometer. Bear in mind that the best whistleblows are made early, before disaster strikes, and it can also be a good sign if multiple whistleblowers report the same thing. What’s most important is that something is done with the information received - in other words, directors need to be confident that ‘speaking up’ is being met with ‘listening up.’

We all benefit from dysfunction and incompetence being uncovered. Investigative journalists often first hear about breaking news and scandals from whistleblowers who have the inside story.

It can be difficult to understand why some people still regard whistleblowing as disloyalty. Part of the reason may be that as children we are warned against telling tales out of school. Attitudes to whistleblowing also vary across national and generational boundaries. Some countries go much further than thanks by actually paying whistleblowers. America’s SEC agency operates the most famous reward scheme but there are smaller schemes in other countries.

There are a relatively small number of celebrity whistleblowers who have divided public opinion, but it’s important not to let their actions unfairly skew the overall perception of whistleblowing. Those who seek fame and fortune are unlikely to be representative.

Equally, whistleblowers losing their jobs or being mistreated in other ways makes great headlines. However unacceptable this is, it’s important not to form the impression that all whistleblowers are made to suffer. Many blow the whistle with minimal fuss, either internally within their own organisation or to an external body, and then continue with their lives and jobs as usual.