Is Whistleblowing Worth It?

Last Updated Sep 3, 2008 3:30 PM EDT

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M&S has sacked a 'whistleblower' for gross misconduct -- because they leaked a story to the media about the retailer's planned cuts to redundancy pay.

The employee, who'd worked for M&S for 25 years, leaked the decision to the press last month, revealing that new proposals would cut redundancy entitlement by up to 25 per cent.

The sacking's raised protests from the GMB, which has accused M&S of operating a "repressive regime" and called the sacking a "gross act of corporate bullying".

It's a harsh judgement, particularly in light of generous payouts for more senior M&S employees such as Steve Esom, who received a £500,000 'golden hello' in 2007 but just over a year later had gone in the wake of a profits warning.

The unnamed employee joins the ranks of famous whistleblowers including Enron's Sherron Watkins, big tobacco's Jeffrey Wigand, Worldcom's Cynthia Cooper and, perhaps most famously in political terms, Watergate's 'Deep Throat', revealed in 2005 as former FBI agent Mark Felt.

In the UK, the late Dr David Kelly broke ranks by telling to a journalist that government documents justifying the invasion of Iraq had been 'glamourized'.

But his fate and those of other British whistleblowers support one US senator's observation that whistleblowers are "as welcome as a skunk at a picnic".

Dr Stephen Bolsin, who revealed serious problems while practising at Bristol Royal Infirmary, emigrated to Australia, claiming he'd been virtually driven from the UK by his actions.

Victimisation of truth-tellers is common and workplaces that encourage whistleblowers to speak out are rare. A global Grant Thornton survey found that just 40 per cent of UK employers had any kind of procedure for employees to report fraud or corruption -- Britain placed a poor 16th out of 33 countries in the study.

An IOSH report found that two thirds of 1,322 surveyed wouldn't report their employer for doing something illegal. But whether this is because they are afraid for their jobs or don't know the form is unclear.

UK employment law protects whistleblowers to a certain extent. Whistleblowers must make written or oral disclosure that demonstrates proof of one of six 'failures' --

  1. Criminal offence
  2. Breach of a legal obligation
  3. Miscarriage of justice
  4. Danger to the health and safety of another individual
  5. Damage to the environment
  6. Deliberate concealing of information on any of the above
Disclosures should be made to an employer, regulator, minister, or legal adviser, or another responsible person. This may be where M&S's whistleblower falls down.

But for employers, it's a reminder of how valuable it is to both know the law and to have some sort of outlet for employees who want to report grievances. According to Changeboard, "this is an increasingly popular claim amongst middle-aged, white males as it enables them to lift the cap on a normal unfair dismissal claim".

There are guidelines for organisations that want to create a safe zone for whistleblowers, available from Public Concern at Work and the BSI. Their PAS 1998:2008 arrangements frame whistleblowing as just another element of risk management.

By setting up an anonymous and recrimination-free procedure within the company or via an employee assistance programme, businesses reduce the risk of leaks to the media, while deterring wrongdoing at work and improving the company's reputation.

Whether or not M&S's whistleblower was wrong to reveal corporate pay policy to a journalist is open for debate. But the episode is unlikely to encourage other employees to speak up. Then who will stop the rot?

(Photo: Clearly Ambiguous, CC2.0)