The NHS must have a different attitude to whistleblowers: bosses must listen and respond, not just think about how to keep them quiet. By Richard Peachey

We’re in a new age of speaking up, when taking on authority feels right and proper. Employees in all kinds of organisations now have the models, precedents and language they need for going public.

But in the singular NHS context of extreme public scrutiny and emotional pressures, encouraging more whistleblowing isn’t necessarily going to do anything for the working environment or stress levels. Whistleblowing is a dangerous weapon when it’s used for malicious purposes, as a means of escalating grievances against management. 

NHS employers quickly need to find a smart, grown-up balance between buttoned-up secrecy and a whistleblower’s charter. The difficulty of finding this balance may well be the reason why it’s four years since the “Freedom to Speak Up” review and yet the topic is more fraught than ever.

Complex situations

More focus on the status of whistleblowers has the potential to only ramp up the pressures of difficult, complex situations, the intensity of what’s said and left unsaid. As a result everyone is more cautious, less likely to be open or to make use of the opportunities to deal with issues at a lower level, through conversations with managers or via mediation.

Whistleblowing is always the last resort, something that only happens when a whole lot of other processes have gone wrong

Identifying what might be malicious takes a great deal of sensitivity and professional attention – the only way for management to avoid the “well they would, wouldn’t they” factor. 

It’s critical the organisation works in a united way. HR, legal and compliance functions need to be working closely together. There should be a whistleblowing guardian with the authority and autonomy to report directly to the chief executive and specific responsibility for the processes involved and to make these kinds of decisions.

Ultimately, complex claims need to be formally investigated and relevant management at all levels need to participate. And it’s not enough for a formal investigation to have taken place. It has to be watertight in terms of processes and the spirit behind it.

In-house investigators will tend to make judgements and provide conclusions in a way that avoids upsetting any of the employees involved. They’re very conscious of future working relationships and opening up any new causes for conflict - they’re rushing as quickly as possible to a comfortable outcome.

What’s needed is professional training, support and time to establish a core of internal staff able to deal with the range of conflict and disciplinary cases before they can slide into worse problems and uglier feelings of grievance. Offering as high a level of impartiality and objectivity as possible is critical for the long-term of employee relations and increasing levels of trust and willingness to be involved in reaching fair resolutions.

There needs to be a shift away from the general sense that whistleblowing is about being anti-authority – the way for the powerless to fight back. It should, instead, always be based on the principle of what’s in the best interests of patients, staff and management as a whole.

So, there needs to be visible commitment from the top for an open culture of conversations, for clearing the air, with senior execs as likely to speak out as a junior nurse. Responsibility and accountability for whistleblowing policy and procedures should sit with the executive team, and not with the HR function.

Whistleblowing is always the last resort, something that only happens when a whole lot of other processes have gone wrong. People feel they’re not or won’t be listened to; they’ve tried the informal routes and were blocked or ignored; they’re frightened about repercussions. Most whistleblowing continues to occur via anonymous letters rather than conversations with a line manager.

It’s easy enough to agree that wrongdoing should always be exposed, no matter how painful to the individuals and organisation involved. The bigger issue – and the reason why so little progress has seemingly been made – is the delivery of this principle.

Mistakes, inappropriate behaviours, cover-ups, they’re all entangled in complicated ways with people’s lives over time – and so it takes a patient, human approach to have the conversations that unpick problems, not a bludgeon of whistleblowing policy.