How to blow the ethical whistle

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If wrongdoing is happening at your workplace, you have a professional and ethical duty to speak up. Francesca West explains all.

If only someone had spoken up. Examples of corporate scandals that could have been mitigated by whistleblowing are everywhere.

Enron, WorldCom, Barings Bank and more recently Lehman Brothers demonstrate that reputations and businesses built up over decades can be destroyed almost instantly, as long as good people are willing to stand idly by and allow wrong to be done. The financial crisis has placed much criticism at the doors of financial institutions. And, with new legislation in the form of the Bribery Act, whistle-blowing is increasingly recognised as an important tool in deterring and detecting malpractice.

It is likely that, at some point in your career, you will have a concern about a serious issue. You may be anxious that raising the matter may be seen as disloyal and could put at risk your relationships with colleagues or your employer.

However, as a professional, you have an ethical and professional responsibility to speak up. If the matter relates to suspected money laundering or a tax issue, you may have a legal obligation to report it. To this end, AAT is working with Public Concern at Work (PCAW) to develop guidance and support for members who may be facing whistleblowing dilemmas.

What to do when you want to speak up

Find out your options

Is there a trusted co-worker or manager you can speak to? Are there other workers who also wish to raise the concern? Does your organisation have a whistleblowing policy?

Be a witness not a complainant

As a whistle-blower you are a witness, communicating a risk about the interests of others to those who can address it – either within the organisation or at the appropriate authority. It should not be a grievance.

If, however, you are aggrieved about your personal position, use the grievance procedure and keep this separate to a whistleblowing concern.

Let the facts speak for themselves

Communicate the concern in a professional, calm and factual manner. If you know how to resolve the problem, suggest a solution. As a witness you do not have to prove your concern and it is important you do not delay by acting as a private detective.

Going outside

If you have raised your concern and believe the risk has not been addressed, or the matter is serious and you are unable to raise it internally, you can contact an appropriate regulator, such as the Financial Services Authority (FSA) or the Financial Reporting Council. A good whistleblowing policy will suggest appropriate external options. For more information, the FSA has guidance about when to get in touch.

Get advice

If you are in any doubt about what to do, seek confidential advice from your professional body, union or PCAW.

Legal protection

If you raise a genuine concern in an honest and reasonable way and you suffer reprisals, you are likely to be protected by the whistleblowers’ legislation, the Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998.

The law protects you if you raise a concern with your employer, and it is also easy to be protected for going to a regulator, such as the FSA. The statute may also protect you if you raise a concern with the media or an MP, though PCAW suggests seeking advice if you are considering this last step. An annotated guide to the law is available online.

Francesca West is Director of Policy at Public Concern at Work.

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