This week I was discussing the new employment law changes in the UK (the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Act (ERRA) if you’re interested) with a colleague (thanks Estelle) and she prompted me with a comment made in Ireland by the IBEC about the lack of protection for employers. In essence, they not only pointed out that the new legislation created a ‘them and us’ mentality but offered no protection for employers against employees who make a false allegation.
I believe that we must protect whistleblowers. Having been exposed to only a small fraction of the actions taken by employees against whistleblowers with either the implicit or explicit support from ‘management’, I believe that this protection must include legislation.
However, I also believe that the state cannot hope to predict all whistleblowing circumstances nor should it regulate workplace relationships. The society of today recognises that the treatment of people should not be based on age, sex, social class etc but if legislation continues to reinforce the stereotypes that have come from the Industrial Age e.g. management versus workers, then it will become uncoupled from, and be of little or no relevance to, the very people it is trying to protect.
Whistleblowers are people who make claims for a whole series of often complex reasons. We still know very little about the motives of whistleblowers but research recognises that most whistleblowers genuinely make claims for a ‘greater’ good. But that doesn't make those claims right nor does it mean that whistleblowers have only good intentions.
Those employees who victimise whistleblowers are also people and can be senior managers, line managers, colleagues and sub-ordinates. We know even less about these people and their motives, or how and why groups of employees act together against whistleblowers.
If the only recourse for whistleblowing employees and wronged organisations is litigation, then I predict we will see less whistleblowing (but bigger cases) and more victimisation. Employees will be less likely to whistleblow as they will see that as a step at which they could lose everything that is important to them whilst employees who feel they have been wrongly accused will try to deal with the accuser directly rather than risk the courts.
Legislation should be the foundation for good practice and a backstop if all else fails. Legislation that creates an adversarial process doesn't seek long-term solutions but blame; doesn't recognise the grey of human relationships but paints a picture of ‘good’ or ‘bad’; and can hold organizations accountable but not specific individuals .
Courage can be a powerful force in the workplace. But if we promote courage, we need to accept the risks. Speaking out about perceived wrongdoing is courage in action – sometimes we call it whistleblowing and seek to blame, at other times we call employee engagement and seek to reward. Maybe we should encourage those accountable in organizations to move towards the engagement end of the scale.