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