What is whistle-blowing? (Definition, benefits, challenges)

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published 24 May 2022

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

Whistle-blowing is a complex process with many regulations around it. Those who act as whistle-blowers might report the problem to their HR department or a prescribed person or body. If you're concerned about how acting as a whistle-blower might work, it's helpful to learn what counts as whistle-blowing and what protection you have. In this article, we answer, 'What is whistle-blowing?', explain its benefits and challenges and discuss what protection whistle-blowers have.

What is whistle-blowing?

Discovering 'What is whistle-blowing?' can be important for you regardless of your role or level of seniority within an organisation. Whistle-blowing occurs when someone discloses information about wrongdoing in the workplace. For example, this could refer to reporting unlawful activities, failure to comply with standards and regulations or inability to ensure safety of individuals.

By 'blowing a whistle', one can protect others in the workplace and help maintain high standards of organisational culture. When reporting, it's possible to raise a concern about past or current events. You may even decide to raise your concern about something that you believe might happen in the future.

Related: 8 ethical issues in business and how to manage them

What counts as whistle-blowing?

To make sure you have effective protection as an employee, it's necessary that you carefully analyse the action that you want to report and determine if it counts as whistle-blowing. Generally, to consider something whistle-blowing it's necessary that it affects others, such as all employees or the general public. Complaints that count as whistle-blowing include:

  • instances of criminal offence, such as frauds

  • health and safety hazards

  • risk or damage to environment

  • a miscarriage of justice

  • the organisation is breaking the law in some way

  • you believe someone's hiding their, or someone else's, wrongdoing

What are the benefits of whistle-blowing?

Reporting fraud, corruption or other misconduct is important because it allows companies to maintain their reputation and ensure the safety of their employees. Here are some benefits of whistle-blowing:

Prevents wrongdoing

When a company nurtures a strong reporting culture, misconduct is less likely to occur. This is because employees know someone would call them out and management would get involved. As a result, the organisation can maintain high ethical standards.

Helps minimise costs and risks

If misconduct continues over a long period of time, it can become costly for an organisation. Through educating your team on the importance of misconduct, you can help your employer avoid various risks or safety hazards. As a result, the company can quickly address any issues before they become threats to its internal structures.

Improves trust and internal communication

Whistle-blowing often acts as a tool for organisational transparency. Companies that recognise the importance of effective reporting have better communication. It's also easier for them to establish trust between employees and managers.

Related: The importance of good communication in organisations

What challenges come with whistle-blowing?

Even if your employer has a whistle-blowing policy, reporting someone's wrongdoing can have its challenges. These include:

Emotional distress

Some people see whistle-blowing as a negative thing. Because of that, whistle-blowers often experience emotional distress even if they know they did the right thing by reporting unethical activity or behaviour. To avoid this, it's helpful to have some supportive people by your side who can help you go through this process and avoid feeling stressed or anxious about doing the right thing.

Related: How to build resilience (7 techniques and examples)

Complex procedures

Reporting unethical activity or behaviour can be complex. Depending on the company's size, industry and approach to reporting, it may take several months to resolve the issue that you want to report. Although this may be challenging, it's important that you consider all pros and cons of blowing the whistle and prepare for it accordingly.

Workplace relationships could suffer

When you decide to report someone's unethical behaviour, there's a risk that your workplace relationships could suffer. This is a possibility especially when the person responsible for that behaviour is a close colleague. In such instances, it can be helpful to make an anonymous claim. You can also give your name when reporting an activity but request confidentiality.

What are the first steps to report an issue at work?

If you're considering making a claim about a workplace issue that concerns you, there are some things you can do before reporting it publicly. These include:

  1. Have evidence: Firstly, it's necessary that you determine if you have any evidence supporting your claim. This way, you can clearly analyse the situation and make sure what you witnessed or experienced qualifies as wrongdoing.

  2. Consider resolving the issue informally: Whistle-blowing is when you make a claim publicly, even if you decide to remain anonymous or request confidentiality. Before raising a claim this way, make sure it's not possible to solve the issue informally or through a standard grievance procedure.

  3. Ask for advice: Lastly, you can ask a trusted person, an HR manager for advice and guidance. If you do not want to report the issue to your employer, you can get legal advice or contact one of the prescribed people and bodies. If at this point you still feel like making a public claim is the right thing to do, the formal procedure can begin.

Related: 10 key HR policies and procedures including examples

What protection do whistle-blowers have?

Employees who report wrongdoing in the public interest have legal protection. For example, it's not possible for en employer to treat a whistle-blower unfairly or terminate their employment. As of April 2022, the document to which you can refer to learn more about whistle-blowing protection is the Employment Rights Act 1996, as amended by the Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998 (PIDA). The act, which protects both the private and public sectors, gives you the right to take a case to an employment tribunal if someone in the workplace has victimised you as a result of your claim.

For most employees making a claim, the first step is to contact their employer or an HR representative who can explain the process to them, including what protection does the company provide internally. Professionals who have whistle-blower protection include:

  • full-time, part-time, contract and other types of employees

  • trainees, such as students or apprentices

  • agency workers

  • members of a Limited Liability Partnership (LPP)

Is there a standard whistle-blowing policy?

It's possible that companies have their own procedures and policies regarding whistle-blowing. Typically, the more employees an organisation has, the more complex the procedures. Other factors that determine reporting policies include the size and nature of the organisation. Despite these differences, there are some standard elements that many companies choose to include in their policies and code of ethics, such as:

  • a detailed explanation of what counts as whistle-blowing in relation to the company

  • a clear explanation of each step that the company takes to handle a public claim

  • a commitment to informing and training all members of the organisation in relation to whistle-blowing and what protection they have

  • a clause in which the organisation promises to treat all disclosures fairly

  • a commitment to maintain confidentiality

  • an explanation of how making anonymous claims is different to making regular claims

Related: Workplace policy examples (with definition and types)

What are the employer's responsibilities regarding whistle-blowing?

Because most companies have formal whistle-blowing policies, the employers have unique responsibilities that come with it. For example, these include:

  • Providing training and support: It's necessary that employers provide employees with relevant training, mentoring, advice and support. This way, they can make sure all members of the organisation know how to approach workplace issues and when to make official claims.

  • Responding to claims in a timely manner: In most instances, it's the employer's best interest to respond to a claim as quickly as possible because it allows them to minimise the risk of losing money due to the claim. Through responding immediately, the employer has more time to investigate the issue and decide how to respond.

  • Resolving the wrongdoing: If the employer finds that there's wrongdoing within the organisation, it's critical that they resolve it. If the type of wrongdoing that someone reported happened for the first time, it may be helpful to develop training and procedures that address it.

Explore more articles