By April Harrington.
16 Dec 2022

When a person sees an unlawful situation at work, they may decide to 'blow the whistle' on it.

All employees have a legal right to raise concerns through whistleblowing. Failure to make changes or follow your legal obligation could lead to business closure and even imprisonment.

In this guide, we'll look at what whistleblowing is, what UK laws apply, and how to manage employees raising concerns.

What is whistleblowing?

Whistleblowing is when you report a serious matter or act to the public sector.

A worker may raise a concern or qualifying disclosure because it involves illegal acts. Or a protected issue could lead to endangering the lives of your staff or the public.

An employee may 'blow the whistle' to help fix a work problem or reclaim social justice.

Remember, whistleblowing can’t be used for personal gain. It's a complicated procedure that highlights illegal or protected concerns in your working practice.


An employee writing down a workplace concern


When is whistleblowing used?

There are so many scenarios that lead to whistleblowing. But staff can’t use it for normal complaints and concerns. Whistleblowing is only be used for ‘qualifying disclosures.’

A qualifying disclosure is an issue that is illegal under the law. There are six categories that define disclosing (under the Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998).

  • Criminal offence: For example, human trafficking, financial corruption, or modern slavery.
  • Breach of law or legal protection: For example, hiring foreign workers without the right documents.
  • Miscarriage of justice: For example, firing someone for another person’s acts of gross misconduct.
  • Health and safety issue: For example, illegal work conditions or safety risks.
  • Damage to the environment: For example, illegal chemical disposal or damaging natural habitats.
  • Deliberate concealment of information: For example, tamper records, falsify data, or disclose information wrongfully.

Workers can only report a protected disclosure (for public interest) through reasonable grounds. They must be truthful in their opinion and experience.

How is whistleblowing different from reporting a complaint?

An employee should not use a whistleblowing procedure for reporting a regular complaint. These complaints go through a grievance procedure and don't generally need disclosure to the public.

For example, a worker raises a corporate fraud complaint to their manager. They’ve already processed it through the grievance procedure, but no changes have been made.

At this point, the employee believes the fraudulent act directly affects public interest and decides to blow the whistle.


A person physically stressed from bullying


What is the UK law on whistleblowing?

The UK law covers whistleblowing in the Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998 (or PIDA).

The law states employees can only 'blow the whistle' on qualifying disclosures. They must comply with three requirements:

  • The whistleblower is a relevant person.
  • The disclosure is true.
  • The disclosure links to public interest.

Whistleblowers cannot face any detriment or unfair treatment because they spoke out. They are protected by law and comply with victimisation, discrimination, or job termination.

If a whistleblower is fired for disclosure, they could raise an unfair dismissal claim. Part-time, casual, and agency workers are protected (by law) from unfair dismissal.

If you ignore your legal obligation or duty, you could end up going to an employment tribunal (ET). The employment tribunal will decide on failure to manage illegal conduct, wrongdoing, or negligence in the workplace.


Toxic chemicals produced by several factories


How to manage a whistleblowing incident in the workplace

Employers need to take the right steps when a worker 'blows the whistle' on protected disclosures.

Any detrimental treatment may lead to claims raised to tribunals. And these are never good, for you or your organisation.

Let's look at managing a whistleblowing incident in the workplace:

Create a whistleblowing policy

It's important to have guidelines that identify illegal wrongdoing at work. That's why every employer should create a whistleblowing policy.

These policies outline what whistleblowing is, when it’s used, and what laws apply.

Your policy can:

  • Help staff 'speak up' about wrongdoings at work.
  • Acknowledge employment rights and entitlements.
  • Set out a procedure for managing a qualifying disclosure.

By following your policy, you’ll be able to deal with any type of ‘public disclosure.’  It’ll also help minimise the aftereffects to the wrongdoing, like reputational damage.

Report the qualifying disclosure

To report a qualifying disclosure, workers need to meet certain circumstances. These include:

  • Report to the right person: Inform the right person or authorities about the protected concern. This might be the employer or local governing body. (For example, raising a safety issue to the Health and Safety Executive or HSE).
  • Include relevant information: Disclosing evidence isn't a legal duty for workers. Rather, they can present the disclosure and certain types of relevant information.
  • Follow your procedures: The employer must take appropriate action. This might include making immediate workplace changes or initiating review assessments.

Remember, a disclosure cannot be raised for malicious reasons or personal gain. They're for raising awareness for the public interest.

If an employer faces false disclosures, it could lead to disciplinary action according to their internal procedures.


An employer organising amendments for a health and safety concern


Make sure their identities are protected

Under UK law, you must protect whistleblowers from detrimental treatment. Every employer must not neglect their employment rights or act unfavourably towards them.

Employers don’t legally have to remain quiet during these protected issues. But it's best for both parties to keep the identity of the whistleblower protected.

You might need to seek specific advice from a prescribed person or authority (like Environmental Health). However, beyond this, only relevant people should know about the report.

Over time, whistleblowers can become known by the business or the public. Just make sure this information didn't come from you or your staff-members. Or else you could be guilty of breaching confidentiality agreements and sharing personal information.

Announce the final decision

After identifying and amending the wrongdoing, you should announce your final decision.

The decision may come from you or a prescribed person (like a legal advisor).

An employer can share their final decision with the whistleblower through a written report. This report should address the disclosure and state what changes will fix them. There's no legal timeframe to adhere to but it should be provided within a reasonable period.

If you can, avoid informing the media about your decisions. It’s best to keep the rights of the whistleblower protected as much as you can.

For certain types of qualifying disclosures, you may need to inform regulatory agencies like:

  • The Serious Fraud Office.
  • The Financial Conduct Authority.
  • The Health and Safety Executive.

Get expert advice on whistleblowing with Croner

Workers can decide to 'blow the whistle' on certain criteria at any given time. That's why it's important for every employer to know how to deal with any type of protected disclosure.

Fail to apply their legal employment rights, and it could lead to huge consequences. Not just for the whistleblower, but for your business revenue and reputation.

Croner offers expert advice on whistleblowing. From initiating changes to keeping confidentiality, our HR advisors are here to help.

Do you have more questions? Speak to a Croner expert for HR or employment law advice today on 0800 470 2755.

About the Author

April Harrington.

An experienced Senior Employment Law Consultant, who has worked for the group for over 9 years. April specialises in discrimination legislation. April has an extensive background in training, as well as recruitment and hospitality.

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