Whistleblowing is not a new phenomenon and is certainly one that is not limited to specific industries. It is widely known as the process of reporting wrongdoing that is in the public interest and is often referred to as making a protected disclosure.
In NI, protection for whistleblowers is set out in the Public Interest Disclosure (Northern Ireland) Order 1998. One of the most important elements of this legislation is that employers have vicarious liability and should whistleblowers be treated unfairly in the workplace, a claim can be made by the whistleblower against both the employer and the whistleblower’s co-workers. Other countries have adopted similar legislation.
Notwithstanding this, there are some widely publicised examples of where protected disclosures were not dealt with appropriately and the whistleblower has not been adequately protected by their employer.
In 2018, Barclays were fined $15million by a US regulator over an attempt by senior staff, including its then chief executive, to unmask a whistleblower who had submitted anonymous letters identifying internal concerns. On top of this, the chief executive was also personally fined just under £650,000 in the UK by the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) for his actions. As a result of their deficiency Barclays are now also subject to additional annual reporting requirements in relation to how they handle whisteblowing.
Whilst the legislation is very clear on the matter of whistleblower protections and the regulators are imposing fines on non-compliance with same, this does not necessarily protect whistleblowers from any backlash from the public and their peers, which can in some cases be more personally damaging.
In 2015 tennis player, Marco Trungelliti, was approached by a would-be match fixer and, as he was required to do so under anti-corruption protocols, reported this to the Tennis Integrity Unit (TIU). Over the next number of years Trungelliti complied with TIU protocol and assisted the TIU with their match fixing investigation. The investigation uncovered a plethora of fixed matches that led to a number of players being banned. As a consequence of Trungelliti’s public involvement in the TIU investigation, a number of his peers turned their back on the player and publically shamed him for his role. Fellow player Sergiy Stakhovsky even publically tweeting that there is a “Thin line between whistle-blower and snitch, all depends who is the judge.”
The value of information provided through whistleblowing should not be underestimated by those charged with governance. However, from the whisteblower’s perspective the question should be considered as to what benefit it has for the individual and whether it is worth the cost. The cost to the individual will be dependent on circumstances, such as, industry (as in Trungelliti’s case) and the nature or medium of disclosure.
Management should aim to create an environment which encourages individuals to speak up without fear. This can be done by ensuring the firm’s whistleblowing policy is widely communicated and understood, introduction of anonymous reporting mechanism and also management leading from the top.