Blowing the whistle

Whistleblowing: what role does L&D have to play? TJ offers a perspective

Whistleblowing is something affecting us as individuals and consumers, employees and employers. And in organisational terms, it’s something that seems to be growing in prevalence: Public Concern at Work’s 2014 annual UK Whistleblowing Report notes that the health sector has seen a 61 per cent annual increase in whistleblowing cases and within the health sector, patient safety concerns have soared by 97 per cent annually. In addition, whistleblowing cases in the education sector continue to rocket 57 per cent year on year and overall, the UK saw a 17 per cent increase in the number of whistleblowing issues raised, although notably, 63 per cent of the concerns that were raised were denied or ignored.1

Not a day seems to go by at the moment without whistleblowing, ethics, misconduct or malpractice hitting the headlines. Already this year we’ve seen a deluge of cases, including MPs commenting on the treatment of whistleblowers in the NHS, newspaper reporting on concerns that the International Criminal Court is failing to act over Darfur, a tribunal challenge for the Ministry of Defence from a whistleblower doctor who was sacked by text message and reports about cancer surgeon, Joseph Meirion Thomas, who was an NHS whistleblower. Lord Francis also published his long awaited report on the lack of protection for NHS whistleblowers, which has re-energized the debate as to who is responsible for what when it comes to the reporting of misconduct.

Yet this is not just a problem for the public sector. Various financial institutions have had their behaviour illuminated by whistleblowers, not least HSBC (again)2 and even FIFA is not immune3.

So, let’s start by considering the extent to which misconduct is consciously or unconsciously condoned in organisations. And more importantly, what happens to those who point it out?

Linking L&D and whistleblowing

If you think that, as a learning and development professional, there’s no link to whistleblowing and your work, your assumption needs to be challenged. Admittedly, I don’t think L&D has a role to play once a whistleblower has broken cover – here HR is front and centre and whether they act with integrity and the extent to which they hold a position grounded in their own or the organisation’s ethics, is another conversation.

No, [pullquote]L&D has a crucial role to play relative to supporting – or undermining – the behaviours that organisations wish (or don’t wish) to see in relation to misconduct[/pullquote]. Specifically, what they hope will happen if one of their employees witnesses an activity or action that they reasonably believe to be unethical, illegal and inappropriate or in some other way transgresses an ethical or legal boundary. This notion of ‘reasonable belief’ is crucial, for it is central to the language of whistleblowing legislation. As such, it is beholden on organisations to engage with the concept as well.

And at this point, it is important to state that, in looking at whistleblowing, we have no alternative but to venture into a conversation about ethics.

There is an unresolvable tension at the heart of this issue, which unfolds at the level of personal decision-making. Relative to their decision, a whistleblower is weighing the pros and cons of speaking out and not speaking out.

Do I say something and stay true to my own moral values and ethics, or speak out, knowing or not knowing whether I will be believed, ostracized, suspended, ignored or let go? Even if I am believed, am I up for the potential consequences even if I am right? In short, am I more prepared to live with all the possible consequences (real and/or imagined) of speaking out or not speaking out?

There is no right or wrong answer, just a choice.

And incidentally, this tension exists for all of us relative to any decision we make, including what to have for breakfast or whether to tell the CEO that her/his actions are illegal.

The challenge for L&D

So here is the nub of the issue: L&D sits at the heart of a conversation about how, when and where to influence, amplify or dampen particular patterns of behaviour. At this intersection, L&D has to make a choice. Does it wish to take a lead from HR and/or the senior leadership team when it comes to what constitutes appropriate behaviour, and what learning needs to take place relative to a culture that can hold the tensions inherit in any instance of reported misconduct? Or is it willing to challenge if it doesn’t go far enough?

That’s the question for L&D – which consequences are they more willing to live with, collectively and individually?

Let’s make an assumption for a moment, that as an L&D professional in your organisation, you are pro-actively looking at how to encourage behaviours that will support a culture that both values the courage of those who speak out/challenge and recognises the implications of this legally, socially and systemically in terms of the relationships between people in the organisation.

What is your role and what conversations might you need to open up?

In a sense, my question is whether you have clearly defined ethics. If the organisation has no ethics and no track record of defining them, then L&D is on shaky ground.

How up for opening this up are you? Do you understand the difference between ethical thinking and ethical doing?

The problem with organisational values is that they often tend to be espoused but not lived. Have a look at, for example, HSBC’s values at the time they were fined $1.9bn to settle US money-laundering accusations in 2012.4

I did. They were great. I’d have signed up to them. But clearly there were a significant number of people who were not doing the values. Glenda Eoyang has written pithily about her issues with organisational values and whilst her stance is provocative, I agree with much of it.5 She lists ten reasons she doesn’t do values, including the espoused vs. lived argument, and others, amongst which are the provocation that they are “an invitation to lie in public” – essentially because once enshrined, how many people in open forum will say they don’t agree with them?

There’s also the question of whether we can even talk about ‘organisational values’ – people have values but do organisations?

Fundamentally, though, ask what your organisation is willing to accept responsibility for, in terms of impact on its people and other external stakeholders? How congruent is that set of ethical standards between what is valued and enacted and is there a difference between what you do inside the four walls of your company and what you
do outside?

Let’s be clear: I am not saying you must ‘do the right thing’ or be ‘holier than thou’. I am inviting you to consider whether you are really engaging with questions of values, ethics and behaviour or playing at it.

How to engage with the organisation

I am going to make an assumption that you want to act. You have decided and may even have permission, to design and implement interventions that are designed to create a culture that supports both whistleblowers to speak and hold the tension once they do. I also assume for simplicity’s sake that you have a healthy and collaborative relationship with HR. If you don’t, start there, as you will need to be at least reasonably aligned on this for legal reasons if nothing else.

Let’s say the aim is as follows: to create and sustain a management/leadership culture in which managers/leaders feel equipped to respond appropriately and supportively when employees blow the whistle and where they challenge themselves when they see misconduct and malpractice.

You will probably be looking at learning interventions that will be in one of the following areas:

Behaviours that support open and honest dialogue

Courageous/difficult conversations


Valuing and/or working with difference


Trust (which in turn will be influenced by the above too).

I expect interventions in some or all of these areas will be known to you. Even if you are doing this already, are you explicitly and implicitly doing so in the context of an organisational-wide, ongoing dialogue around ethical behaviour and how to challenge in your organisation?

If this pattern is to be disrupted, L&D needs to be part of opening up a conversation between leaders and other levels of staff around how they are experiencing trust differently.

What’s the end game?

Be clear about why you are doing what you are doing and what you want to be different as a result. If this sounds a bit repetitive, it is deliberate. This territory is complex, challenging, emotional and profoundly human. Are you coming at this, say, from the position of risk-mitigation for the business, or compassion for those involved? The difference in intention is crucial.

A friend of mine told me a story recently that is worth telling here. At a City of London-based launch event for an environmentally-focused charity a couple of years ago, a trustee (and a leading figure in a senior sustainability role within the finance sector) said in his opening address words to the effect of: “You know what it’s like, when we get to work in the morning we have to leave our personal ethics and values at the door. But the great thing about being involved in this organisation is you don’t have to.”

There is a narrative in some organisations and arguably one perpetuated by politicians and the media (except when the demand for more cuts to public services are over ridden by the need, say, for more compassion in front line health care), that, in the real world of business/work, values are optional. That ‘doing the right thing’ is great if there is sufficient time and money but ultimately efficiency and profitability is what counts and there is no evidence that leading and managing through integrity has verifiable ROI.

Yet, if you want to create cultures where whistleblowing is not a career ending move, rather it is recognised as a symptom of a wider systemic dysfunction than the issue in and of itself, you need to look elsewhere.

In a 2014 case study entitled Heightened integrity delivers increased profits,6 Alan Barlow describes in detail his experiences as CEO of Hamworthy Combustion Group. He took over a troubled organisation with a highly dysfunctional culture and turned it into a profitable enterprise. And he did so taking a clear stance that he wished to lead with integrity, with a clear set of values. “Following a lot of discussion and pilot airing of the concepts in a variety of forums, the following values were adopted:

Treat colleagues, suppliers and customers like you want to be treated

No surprises: communicate proactively

No negative emails. Discuss: speak directly
or phone

SODA (Scheme of Delegated Authority): Keep within delegated authority, or consult upwards”

What is striking when you read the case study is both how Barlow consistently followed through and embodied these values and linked the impact to KPIs that spoke to the needs of the shareholders in terms of profitability and sustainability. On any commercial measure, it was a success.

Note the language as well. The above are not values that talk to how people might think, they are aimed at describing specific behaviours and actions. They form a contract between CEO, organisation and employees that makes explicit a set of expectations. Coupled with a willingness to support and challenge, this was significant.

What does this mean for L&D?

My purpose in taking you through the above is to illustrate that L&D does not act in isolation. The context you operate in, the mandate you have and contract with the organisation in terms of what impact they really want you to have is crucial. 

Equally, at a senior level, is there genuine interest in and willingness to engage in both a conversation around ethical thinking and doing, and to entertain the possibility that this might (and probably will) mean senior leaders embodying and modelling the behaviours you wish to see?

Mike Collins raised the question recently as to whether L&D needs a seat at the top table:

“If we as L&D professionals continue to operate in isolation then our work – no matter how positive, innovative or useful – will have limited impact. We are all in the change business and regardless of how we ourselves change, we must also work in partnership with those around us at every level of the business to ensure we are as effective as possible as driving performance improvement.”7

I would go further. If you want to make a difference with whistleblowing and what it is a symptom of, you cannot simply frame the ultimate goal of L&D as being that of
performance improvement.

Creating cultures where robust, open, honest challenge exists alongside the humility to accept people make mistakes and are sometimes wrong, means inquiring into the extent to which leaders and managers don’t just tolerate dissent. Are they prepared to listen and relative to the organisation’s ethics of thinking and doing, act? Because ultimately the trust people have in the organisation, in the culture, in you, in the leadership, all of this unfolds at the level of relationship and action. That is serious and systemic change. 

A fully referenced version is available on request.


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