What to do when you want to report misconduct in the workplace

It is difficult to give concrete advice to whistleblowers, because there are so many factors influencing the matter. Local legislation is also not always the same. However, a 2013 joint research project by the UK whistleblowing charity Protect (formerly Public Concern at Work or PCaW) and the University of Greenwich identified some strategies that yielded better results for those reporting. Thus this article will touch on the following points, to offer some useful advice to potential whistleblowers on:

  • Fear of reprisal;
  • How many times one should report;
  • Power dynamics.

Fear of reprisal

While fear of reprisal is still a major hurdle deterring many from blowing the whistle, the Protect report did find out that it is disproportionate to experience. That is, it happens less frequently than people believe. At the same time, the most common response to a report by management is doing nothing. The EU Whistleblowing Directive (2019) aims to rectify this by imposing deadlines which determine when reports should be addressed, however the type of response one gets is still up to how the company chooses to handle it. 

At least retaliation is officially banned by the new Directive, however whistleblowers should always consult their organisation’s whistleblower policy, as well as find out which legislation applies to the circumstance they witnessed. To assist in this task, those who wish to report should also seek help early on in the process, for example from their union, a law firm, professional body, or a charity. In some countries there are also programs whistleblowers can apply to be eligible for monetary compensation.

The way the misconduct is reported also seems to make a difference. The Protect report found that raising a concern as a grievance had negative outcomes for the whistleblower. Furthermore, reporting first with a line manager, then following up with someone higher up yielded better outcomes.

How many times should I blow the whistle?

The study by Protect and University of Greenwich also found that the likelihood of an official investigation increased with repeated reports. That is, people who keep speaking up eventually get their concerns addressed. While many experience better results by reporting more than twice, this should be balanced against an increased chance of a formal negative response when raising a concern three or four times.

Furthermore, the report suggests that escalating concerns to a regulator at the second or third time of reporting increases the chances of it being addressed, while also reducing the likelihood of dismissal. The caveat is that the likelihood of other forms of formal reprisal rise at the same time. However, as mentioned above, actual rates of reprisal are lower than feared. When retaliation does occur whistleblowers are more likely to experience formal action that falls short of dismissal.

If you're the employer, or work for HR, we have gathered some advice on how to best approach and manage whistleblowing reports here.

Powerful whistleblowers

The study also found that in organisations where reprisals do occur, the lower position in the hierarchy the whistleblower occupies, the longer they are generally tolerated. The exception is when the whistleblower holds a powerful position, in which case they are likely to be dismissed sooner. This could be because they represent a bigger problem for the company. Such individuals may do more to blow the whistle since they tend to have fewer internal options to speak up. This is where anonymous whistleblowing reporting options can enable people to report more easily and avoid the risk of being dismissed or retaliated against.

To summarise, it is difficult to ensure with absolute certainty that whistleblowers will not experience negative consequences to reporting misconduct in the workplace. At the same time, the fear of reprisal does not correspond to reality. In most cases retaliation stops short of dismissal, except when the whistleblower themselves is a powerful individual. Continuing to follow up with more reports also tends to result in more attention devoted to the case and a better outcome, yet this must still be balanced against the risk of a formal negative response.

Further reading:

Vandekerckhove W, James C & West F (2013) Whistleblowing: the inside story - a study of the experiences of 1,000 whistleblowers. Public Concern at Work, London, UK. Available at: https://gala.gre.ac.uk/id/eprint/10296/