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Whistleblowers: Why Should They Be Listened to?

stock illustration 3d rendered person blowing whistleThis is an article from The Guardian newspaper in the UK.  It is an excellent summary of why it is so incredibly important to support whistleblowers, to give employees access to anonymous and confidential channels to come forward and protect the integrity of the organization and their colleagues.

A succession of care-home and child-abuse scandals has dogged local authorities over the past few years, and what is striking is that in each incident the behaviour involved was visible to dozens, sometimes hundreds of people. It is surprising that no one blew the whistle earlier.

Whistleblowers are rare and misunderstood. Popularly portrayed as marginal figures, eccentric if not downright mad, they always come across as irritable malcontents. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The overwhelming majority of whistleblowers are deeply loyal, committed employees who have high expectations of their organizations. It's when those institutions fail to meet high standards that the nascent whistleblower becomes distraught, frustrated and sounds the alarm. Only when they find – to their mounting disappointment – that they are ignored or rejected do they go outside the organization to draw attention to their grievances.

Every great employee, therefore, is a potential whistleblower and should be cherished as such. What the recent scandals have shown us is that no management or monitoring system will catch every problem breeding inside an organization. But its employees could: they are an institution's best early warning system. Nurses, porters, receptionists, cleaners all the way up the hierarchy see more and know more and could catch problems early if they were prepared to speak up.

Why don't they? The chief barriers are fear and futility. Fear of recrimination from supervisors and co-workers or the sense that nothing will ever change keep most workers silent. They know when things are going wrong; they always know. They just aren't saying – until it's too late.

The challenge for local authorities, therefore, is to create the culture and the systems that make it easy and attractive for anyone with a concern to articulate it early, when the issue is still easy to fix.

The Body Shop used to issue all new staff with red envelopes: anyone seeing anything they felt let the company down was encouraged to write down their concerns, place their report (signed or unsigned) in the envelope, and put it in the internal post; they were guaranteed that it would be read by the chief executive. Contrary to cynical sneers, reports weren't malicious or trivial and alerted the company to problems that mattered.

The aviation industry has perhaps the most robust and respected tradition of supporting and rewarding those who identify a fault or concern. Knowing you could go down with the plane probably focuses the mind wonderfully, but a no-blame culture encourages people to speak up and makes everyone safer.

Mistakes, too, are usually early indications of a systemic problem. This means that a climate of safety – where it's easy and comfortable to acknowledge errors – is the best way to catch issues early. Even in the notoriously litigious environment of American healthcare systems, it is becoming clear that the safest hospitals are those in which it's easiest to acknowledge failures.

By the time a whistleblower is frustrated enough to go public, managers have lost the battle. Not only do they now have a public relations crisis to manage but they've lost the chance to solve a problem while it was still small and private. The defensiveness that inevitably ensues drives truth-telling further underground and makes it less likely that anyone will speak up early enough next time.

The management of whistleblowers, therefore, requires real courage on the part of managers. They need to be unafraid when someone shines light on a problem and to recognize that the people who do so are their source of safety. They need then, of course, to validate what they've been told, check their facts and assess the potential damage. When they have fully addressed the problem, it is then critical that they celebrate the fact that it was reported. Because the only way anyone believes you when you say you won't shoot the messengers is when, instead, you celebrate them.

Margaret Heffernan, a writer and columnist, is the author of Wilful Blindness: Why We Ignore the Obvious at Our Peril.


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