James Tait, associate at Birmingham law firm Shakespeares, examines the rights of whistleblowers in the workplace...
Current legislation provides employees with considerable protection if they blow the whistle.
But employers should not be alarmed.
Following some reasonably straight forward steps, such as getting a decent policy in place, can help protect against this potentially damaging scenario.
The Public Interest Disclosure Act 1988 came into force on July 2, 1998 and is designed to protect workers who have legitimate concerns about wrongdoings going on in the workplace.
If a worker makes a claim following official guidelines they will be protected under the legislation.
In order to qualify as a claim, the information which the worker discloses must be related to a prescribed serious wrongdoing. Common examples include that a criminal offence is being committed, a miscarriage of justice is being perpetrated or there is some threat to the environment.
If a worker has a legitimate concern along these lines, then they must tell the right person. In most instances this would be the worker's employer or a legal advisor in the course of obtaining legal advice. Only exceptionally can they go to an external party - the idea is that where possible, matters are addressed inhouse to avoid unjustified malicious talk and actions.
The exception is that any disclosure not made in good faith, for example to extort money, will mean that the protection of the legislation will not apply. Usually, these sorts of issues will not arise on a day-to-day basis.
However, HR managers would be well advised to make sure that they have a whistleblowing policy in place, in view of the potentially serious consequences of matter getting out of hand.
A policy explaining what any of the employees should do if they are concerned about what is happening at work is a good starting point.
Who should they turn to if they think criminal activities take place at work, or if financial mismanagement is rife? They need to be reassured that they should not feel obliged to turn a blind eye to this.
Make it clear that as their employer you take these issues very seriously.
Explain that their safety will be of utmost importance, and that if a disclosure about a serious matter is made, it will be dealt with appropriately, as long as it is handled correctly.
Outline who they should raise an issue with in the first instance. It might be appropriate to say that it should first be with a line manager or somebody more senior.
Reassure that the matter will be dealt with in confidence and that appropriate measures will be put in place.
Make it clear that if employees do have substantial concerns, they do have to follow the necessary policy, otherwise this could result in serious consequences for the employee.