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The press in the UK has been full of articles in the last week relating to how whistleblowers have bought to light the shocking conditions that have existed in a number of NHS hospitals. 

While the US Government is rewarding, to the tune of $104m, a whistleblower who informed on the practices of UBS to help Americans evade taxes, in the UK the Government is investigating NHS authorities who have been said to harassed and even sacked employees who highlighted high death rates and poor hygiene standards.

While there is no doubt that more can be done at a government level to encourage employees to speak out, is it not time to recognise that organisations should review the way they look at whistle-blowing?

Even a quick look on Google suggests that whistle-blowing is seen in a very negative light.  Most references are to meeting legislative standards, how to train managers to respond to whistleblowers or how organisations can implement practices such as hotlines.  These responses all suggest that the role of the organisation is to react to employees.

What if organisations turned this around and started to be proactive?  What if organisations recognised that the goal of most whistle-blowers is actually positive – to save lives, stop the law being broken or reduce damage to the environment.  While the short term consequences of responding to a whistle-blower can be painful, inevitably the long-term consequences of the continued actions are significantly worse.

What if organisations embraced employees who cared enough about the organisation and its wider society that they are prepared to risk damaging their career, losing their job, harassment and sometimes even death?

Whistle-blowing is an extreme example of organisational courage.  While whistle-blowers are not always right, it takes significant courage to invoke legislation in order to be heard – especially when (with the exception of the US) there are little or no financial rewards for doing so. 

Courage is linked to innovation and employee engagement.  Higher levels of courage are indirectly linked to higher levels of productivity, higher employee retention, high profitability and fewer health and safety issues.

What if organisations saw whistle-blowing as the extreme act of someone who wants to be listened to seriously?  And rather than dealing with the action, organisations sought to ensure that employees have the skills, access to communication channels and the organisations encouragement to speak up?

‘What if’ is a powerful question.  What is your answer?