‘We need a whistleblowing system that staff have confidence in’

Failures in our whistleblowing system too often punish those who raise concerns, writes ex-social services director Blair McPherson

Picture: Jeff Blackler/Rex Features
Picture: Jeff Blackler/Rex Features

By Blair McPherson, former adult social services director

In my experience as both an investigator and a chair of disciplinary hearings the typical whistleblower is a junior member of staff who feels powerless in the face of bad practise and abuse.

They cannot report their concerns to their supervisor because this individual is colluding with or choosing to ignore the bad practise. The initial response of management is not to take the matter seriously or to tell the individuals line manager that accusations are being made and by whom.

Social workers, nurses, care assistants, occupational therapists, physiotherapists, junior doctors, team leaders and domestics are the staff who need a whistleblowing system they can have confidence in, one that offers them support and protects them from victimisation.

Whistleblowing systems claim to offer confidentiality. It is true that no-one will know it was you who made the report. But in practice the investigation needs people to speak up and disciplinary action requires witnesses.

Whether we are talking about how elderly people are treated on the ward or how people  with a learning disability are ‘punished for misbehaving’, it comes down to the bravery of an individual being prepared to say what they observed. That individual knows that even staff who don’t agree with the way patients are treated will still have a misguided sense of loyalty which means they will not inform on their colleagues and will victimise anyone who does.

Investigations can take weeks as large numbers of staff may need to be interviewed. Further delays can come if those accused choose not to cooperate by making themselves unavailable for interview. Often it is months before the disciplinary hearing is held and during this time things can get nasty for the whistleblower, anything from colleagues refusing to work with them to threats and intimidation against them and sometimes against their children.

Many nursing homes draw their staff from the immediate locality. The whistleblower and the accused may live a few streets away, shop in the same parade, kids go to the same schools. Of course management will instruct staff under investigation to have no contact with the whistleblower but that doesn’t stop relatives, friends and supporters shouting abuse in the streets or making anonymous phone calls.

As a senior manager I chaired a lot of disciplinary hearings. Many relied on whistleblowers being prepared to back up their initial confidential report with a retelling in front of the person they accused and then being subjected to often hostile questioning by the accused representative. At the end there was no guarantee that even if the allegations were found proven that the individual would be dismissed.

So the whistleblower could end up still working alongside the colleague and supervisor they had accused! As a former senior manager I am amazed that anyone is prepared to put themselves through this. It is no wonder so many leave it to someone else.

Blair McPherson is a former Director of Community services, author and commentator on the public sector

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5 Responses to ‘We need a whistleblowing system that staff have confidence in’

  1. Angela September 5, 2014 at 11:03 am #

    It is precisely this attitude of colleagues and their behaviour towards whistleblowers that has led to the horrific situation in Rotherham child exploitation. The researched was told to go on a diversity course when she told the truth about what British born Pakistani men were doing to predominantly white girls for 16 years. The truth sometimes hurts but you can’t run away from it in ourselves or society.

    There is no wonder no one wants to put their head above the parapet.

    This system needs changing and whistleblowers praised for telling the truth not condemned.

    • Lorraine Dixson September 5, 2014 at 4:40 pm #

      Agree ! I’m suspended for telling the truth. Was agency so getting no pay. Can’t apply for benifits as I’ve to much equity in my home and live alone So money comming in at all !! I’m having to sell my house. Do I retreat comming forward and telling what I belive is the truth. NO !!! I am soooooo angry

  2. John Burton September 5, 2014 at 4:01 pm #

    This is a refreshingly realistic article from Blair McPherson. Much as organisations should make it as easy as possible for employees to report malpractice, we should recognise that true “whistleblowing” takes place only in circumstances when the organisation will not listen and will not take action. Policy makers have a naive (or, perhaps, cynical) faith in new systems which fail to get to the bottom of problems they have created. Typically, CQC set up a whistleblowers “hot line” because they repeatedly failed to listen and take action when employees alerted them to malpractice in social and health care. Listening and taking action was and is one of their core tasks, and reporting abuse or neglect to CQC is not whistleblowing; it’s what they are there for. On the other hand, alerting Panorama to institutional failures in CQC or in a hospital or care home, after trying but failing to get these institutions to respond is whistleblowing, and experience shows that it will often result in scapegoating, disciplinary action, bullying, and loss of job.

    You cannot proceduralise, institutionalise or incorporate a process (whistleblowing) that is by definition disruptive, subversive and anti-estabishment. When you try to do so, it ceases to be whistleblowing. An organisation’s “whistleblowing procedure” is a contradiction in terms.

  3. GM September 7, 2014 at 9:23 pm #

    Whistleblowing should be Mandatory.

    1400 girls in Yorkshire.
    NHS Scandals
    Private Hospital abuse
    Etc.
    Etc.
    Ad Nauseam.

    Those who do not protect the vulnerable.
    Those persecuting people who stand up for the vulnerable.
    Those should be the ones who are pilloried and ruined.

    GM Ex-Nurse/Whistleblower

  4. kathy trenwith September 8, 2014 at 8:58 pm #

    what is needed is a properly supported and staffed system.
    more and more work is expected of fewer and fewer staff. from personal experience, staff were less and less likely to work through until retirement because of the increasing levels of stress.

    ex-community nurse (LD)/Care Manager