Speaking up at work is not treachery

Katherine Bradshaw discusses why society needs to move away from the narrative that those who speak up are troublemakers.

Speech bubble - speaking up at work is not treachery

When David Conn, author of The Fall of the House of FIFA, interviewed Sepp Blatter, former president of football’s governing body, he was struck that when discussing Yuliya Stepanova, who had recently exposed the Russian state doping of athletes, Blatter sneered: ‘Because if you are a whistleblower, it’s not correct as well.’

Conn asked him to clarify: ‘Was he saying whistleblowers are not correct?

“No,” [Blatter] confirmed. “At school, if you had somebody who was a whistleblower towards the tutor, then...” and he trailed off, as if it was obvious.

“Do you still think that?” [Conn] asked.


“That they are like a snitch in school?”

“Yes, yes,” he said.’

Sepp Blatter is not the only one with a dim view of whistleblowers. The media attacks on those who spoke up about sexual harassment in Westminster and Hollywood are a recent example of the negative perception of those who speak up about wrongdoing.

From the tattle-tale at nursery to the snitch at school or mafia super-grass, the cultural narrative is that those who speak up are sneaks and spoilsports and should be vilified.

High-profile whistleblowers like Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning are often characterised as traitors. Whistleblowing is seen as a breach of confidentiality, a conflict between private and public, a betrayal of the tribe.

The Institute of Business Ethics sees the freedom to raise concerns as a core component of an ethical business culture where employees are confident they will be supported to ‘do the right thing’.

It has published a Good Practice Guide to assist organisations in encouraging a speak-up culture, because our surveys show that, although employees know how to raise a concern, they do not always feel able to do it.

Widespread misconduct

Every three years, the IBE surveys employees about their experience of ethics at work. In the latest survey in 2015, a fifth of employees said they had been aware of misconduct during the past year.

This level of awareness has been relatively consistent since the survey began in 2005. But only half of those who witnessed misconduct said they raised their concerns.

“Most organisations state in their policy or code of ethics that retaliation will not be tolerated, but employee experience tells a different story”

The most prominent reason these employees give for keeping silent is that they fear it will jeopardise their job (30%), while nearly a quarter believe that appropriate corrective action would not be taken. All respondents said they knew who to contact.

Protecting those who raise concerns is a key challenge when it comes to establishing an effective ‘speak up’ procedure. Most organisations state in their policy or code of ethics that retaliation will not be tolerated, but employee experience tells a different story. It is time for organisations to show, not tell.

Different terms

The terms ‘whistleblowing’ or ‘speak up’ are often used interchangeably and can cover disclosure of a wide range of legal and ethical issues. But at the IBE we differentiate between the two.

‘Blowing the whistle’ externally can be considered a last resort, when concerns have not been listened to or acted upon internally. ‘Speaking up’ implies raising a concern internally so that it can be remedied, hopefully before it becomes a bigger problem.

The IBE prefers the term speak up, as it has more positive and constructive connotations for organisations wishing to encourage employees to raise concerns. This change of language can mark the fostering of an open culture, where employees feel confident that their concerns will be taken seriously and handled sensitively internally.

A speak up procedure provides a mechanism for employees to raise concerns about anything they find unsafe, unethical or unlawful. If companies do not offer this support to their employees, or only pay nominal lip service to it, concerns that are not dealt with may become a crisis.

The legal backdrop

Whistleblower protection legislation began to be taken seriously following significant public incidents. Examples include the sinking of the Herald of Free Enterprise ferry in Zeebrugge in 1987 and the Clapham Junction rail crash in 1988, which springboarded the Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998 in the UK.

In the US, the fall of Enron and WorldCom precipitated the Sarbanes-Oxley Act. Enquiries into these disasters and scandals focused on the adequacy of laws and regulatory controls.

Investigations revealed that employees had been aware of the danger but had not felt able to raise the matter internally or to pursue it when their concern was not taken seriously when they did.

“Effective speak up arrangements are considered central to corporate governance reforms as well as public sector and professional accountability”

Current legislation is also evolving as a result of the financial crash of 2008, with global changes to whistleblower protections, but barriers still remain. Legislation on external reporting continues to be considered necessary because it provides a safety net in cases where internal disclosure procedures are unreliable or corrupt.

Effective speak up arrangements are considered central to corporate governance reforms as well as public sector and professional accountability.

Where local whistleblowing protection is poor or lacks definition in legal terms, it is good practice for organisations to establish their own higher protections for employees who speak up, whatever the local legal requirements.

Ethics starts where the law ends and as more organisations realise the benefits of encouraging an open culture they are looking into better ways to protect those who speak up from detriment.


As Oscar Wilde said: ‘No good deed goes unpunished.’ This is never truer than when it comes to whistleblowers.

Despite explicit assurances from companies that retaliation against those who speak up will not be tolerated, fostering an open culture where employees are able to voice their concerns confidently and without fear of reprisal remains hard for many organisations.

Figures from the whistleblowing charity Public Concern at Work show that four out of five whistleblowers have a negative outcome – 29% are victimised, 28% are dismissed, and 24% resigned.

Retaliation can take many forms and is not always easy to identify. From failing to be promoted to being ignored in the canteen, it can manifest as the kind of low-level bullying that often falls under the radar of audit and HR. Retaliation may spill out of the workplace and into the pub, the school playground and the community.

Sometimes it can be more serious – the IBE was told of an employee whose report had resulted in a large number of dismissals. His family received death threats as a consequence and the company protected and relocated him.

Practical steps in the speak up process can go some way to protect those who raise concerns, for example by ensuring that as few people as possible have access to reports and by preserving confidentiality in investigations and anonymity where requested.

Companies are beginning to do more to monitor detriment by examining career paths of those who speak up, keeping in touch periodically with those who raise concerns and introducing care plans and welfare checks. Those who are found to retaliate should face misconduct and disciplinary proceedings.

Debate over rewards

There is much debate about rewarding those who speak up. They risk losing everything – as mentioned, over half of whistleblowers face being dismissed or forced to resign. Monetary rewards are seen as a way to encourage those who risk losing their livelihoods for doing the right thing.

In the US, the Securities and Exchange Commission set up its Office of the Whistleblower in 2011. Since then, awards to whistleblowers have surpassed $154 million and resulted in nearly $1 billion in fines.

Rewards are not just confined to US citizens – US law firms are now approaching whistleblowers in the UK and encouraging them to bring cases, for example under US laws such as the False Claims Act.

“Those who speak up are not motivated by monetary rewards – they want their concerns listened to, and more importantly, acted upon”

Despite perceived risks to jobs and careers, employees speak up because what they have witnessed cannot be reconciled with their personal values or the stated valued of the organisation.

They believe they are doing the right thing and they have to trust that the organisation will deal with the issue raised. They are not motivated by monetary rewards – they want their concerns listened to, and more importantly, acted upon.

Organisations must begin to consider how they thank those who speak up. It could be as simple as a note from the CEO or chairman, an award nomination or acknowledgement in the staff newsletter.

At the least, employees should be made aware of the positive changes that their report has made. Thanking those who alert the organisation to potential risks encourages others to do the same.

It takes courage

After Iceland’s devastating economic crash in 2008, the country’s commitment to rooting out fraud has made it famous for being uniquely whistleblower-friendly.

This shift was bolstered by a strengthened national interest in free speech, anonymity for whistleblowers and the transparency of corporations and the government. Iceland’s approach perhaps demonstrates whistleblowing as the ultimate act of loyalty.

Our society needs to move away from the story that those who speak up are troublemakers. Although some might abuse the system, those with genuine concerns must not be tarred with the same brush.

It takes immense courage to raise concerns in an unsupportive environment. A supportive ethical culture is one where concerns can be raised, advice sought, authority questioned and decisions challenged without fear of repercussions. This is what is meant by openness.

Organisations that take ethics seriously are looking at different ways to remove the barriers to speaking up. They train managers appropriately, run communication campaigns, inform staff of outcomes and praise those who raise concerns.

To establish an open culture where employees ‘do the right thing’ and speaking up becomes the norm, we must reframe messages about behaviour and celebrate and reward those who raise concerns – speaking up can save lives and livelihoods. Organisations should celebrate these guardians of ethical culture, however uncomfortable it is for management to listen.

Katherine Bradshaw is head of communications at the Institute of Business Ethics

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