The Big Picture: Whistleblow with care

It’s that time of the year again when the winter sports season has started in earnest and on weekend afternoons in parks and stadiums across the country the shrill sound of whistles can be heard. Those charged with the task of keeping competitors in order, while the adrenalin flows and competitive instincts let rip, face no easy job, especially when both teams and their supporters doubt your integrity. But at the end of the game everyone walks away, moves on and leaves the match behind.

How much more difficult though to be a whistleblower in your own organisation, where the context is not a game, where the stakes are much higher, the issues more important and where for the weeks to follow, you have to work with the people you have challenged. Whistleblowing is never going to be easy. It takes courage and commitment to express concerns.

But it also requires a measured reaction from those who have to respond to the whistleblower. This response needs to be proportionate. If it is too little or too late the whistleblower feels stranded and unsupported. If it is too dramatic and draconian then potential whistleblowers will be discouraged as they fear for the unnecessary heavy consequences for colleagues.

So organisations need to take action to encourage whistleblowing, and also give thought to how a proportionate response is given when concerns are raised.

The organisational dynamics on whistleblowing are complex. I recall clear cut issues when poor, and sometimes abusive, practice or management were exposed and action could be taken to prevent or deter its recurrence. But I also recall times when work groups were in conflict among themselves with different factions frequently whistleblowing about each other. As well as giving consideration to each complaint on its merits, it was important then to also look at the games being played. And one of the biggest challenges was when someone whistleblew about being bullied and there was then a counter accusation that the whistleblower was the bully!

So let’s not kid ourselves that whistleblowing is straightforward. It requires a clear focus on what is right plus the confidence and value-base to challenge and expose. But let’s also recognise that organisations need to reflect on how they respond when the whistle is blown, recognising that the response given will have a major impact on whether and how concerns are raised in the future.

Ray Jones is a social care consultant and a former council social care director

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