He didn’t know who he could trust. He was in a foreign country and didn’t speak the language. What was clear was that the chair of the board and the director of finance were involved. The evidence was undisputable.
First he made sure the incriminating documents were out of the country and in safe hands. Then he called an emergency board meeting. When he entered the board room everyone else had arrived early and was waiting for him. The chairman high-jacked the agenda and proposed his dismissal, which was agreed unanimously.
‘The classic public sector whistleblower is not a chief executive but a junior member of staff in a small nursing home’
They already knew and had chosen to protect the company and themselves. He was escorted out the building. He went straight to the airport and flew home. To protect himself while waiting for his flight he rang a journalist at the Financial Times and gave them the story.
It doesn’t get much more dramatic. This may sound like a Hollywood thriller involving a Japanese multinational company, a billion-dollar fraud, the Yakuza and what happens when a chief executive tries to blow the whistle – but it is a true story. Michael Woodford was a City high flyer who got the top job at Olympus only to discover a massive financial fraud.
In the public sector things tend to be less cinematic but no less traumatic for whistleblowers. The classic public sector whistleblower is not a chief executive but a junior member of staff and rather than a multinational company, the location is a small residential or nursing home for frail elderly people or people with a learning disability.
It’s not about exposing a multimillion-dollar fraud, though money and profit may play a part, but it is about power and abuse. While it may not be in a foreign country, the whistleblower may find themselves isolated and ostracised, not knowing who to trust. Because most staff live and work locally, there is every chance your children attend the same school, you shop at the same stores and drink in the same pub as those you have accused.
And their friends! There are no Japanese mafia connections but there can be poison pen letters, threatening late-night phone calls and nasty things through the letter box which are distressing and frightening.
‘Blowing the whistle is only the start. There is the struggle to be believed, then the fear of retribution’
It no surprise that the typical whistleblower is new to the workplace. In residential work, it is often a temporary member of staff such as someone brought in to provide short-term cover for sickness or holidays, someone who has worked elsewhere and knows the type of things that should not happen; someone who has no intention of staying, who knows a manager from outside the home who won’t ignore their concerns.
Blowing the whistle is only the start. There is the struggle to be believed, then the fear of retribution. An anonymous allegation may trigger an investigation but if no one is prepared to make a statement and appear as a witness it is difficult to mount a successful disciplinary case, so there will be pressure from management, as well as group pressure “not to get involved”.
Investigations and disciplinary action in these cases are notoriously drawn out. Staff are suspended, often for months, while an investigation is carried out and then, if there is evidence of abuse, while a disciplinary hearing is held.
At the end there is no guarantee those accused will be found guilty and dismissed, so they could be back at work alongside their accuser.
Its an expression I first heard used by NHS colleagues. The question was, “What’s the bed situation?” The response was “Almost full.”
The manager tersely said either we are full and have no beds, or we are not full and have beds. But to the nursing/ward staff “almost full” meant they were rushed off their feet and did not want any more admissions.
A recent report informs us that the NHS is now permantly ”almost full“ and increasingly there are more days when it is full.
People can raise their game in an emergency but they can’t perform at that level indefinitely. Fatigue leads to mistakes, and being overworked and understaffed leads to a culture of doing things for the convenience of staff rather than the needs of patients. This in turn leads to indifference and poor care.