By Steve Turner - 5th November 2016
What Is Whistleblowing?
The start must always begin with the question what is whistleblowing? It is a term many, including myself, don’t like but we’re stuck with it because it’s used in law, and inventing a new term would be an unnecessary distraction.
Here in the UK, NHS bodies have been guilty of muddying the waters. Sometimes implying that whistle-blowers are people who fail to use the proper channels, or are troublemakers, especially when they go outside their organisation with their concerns. In fact, the Public Interest Disclosure Act makes no distinction between ‘internal’ and ‘external’ whistle-blowers.
In my view this misconception holds back some whistle-blowers and has been reinforced by some NHS initiatives, including NHSIQ with their ‘rock the boat but stay in it’ strap line. In my case, and many others, it was not possible to ‘stay in the boat’ without condoning unacceptable behaviours and cover ups.If you’re interested to learn more about this, take a look at the Frequently Asked Question Section on www.tutv.org.uk
Clarification on why blowing the whistle is a duty and vital for patient safety is absent or hard to find on some key NHS bodies information pages. The National Freedom to Speak Up Guardian Office and NHS Employers Freedom to Speak Up Guardian Hub web pages are good examples of this lack of clarity. In both I would expect the definition of what whistleblowing is to be at the top, and it isn’t.
So here’s my outline summary: To raise concerns; talk to trusted colleagues; rise it with the team; follow your employer’s and national policies / processes; involve managers.
Blow the whistle if people fail to listen when:
· You suspect a criminal offence
· You suspect misconduct
· Health and safety is in danger
· You suspect a miscarriage of justice
· Your employer is breaking the law
· You believe someone is covering up wrongdoing
Are All Whistleblowers Genuine?
In addition to being clear on what whistleblowing is, it is also useful to look at the whistleblower stories and reflect on the complexity of the issues. This includings what drives people to blow the whistle. Just as not all managers are bullies, not all whistle-blowers are genuine. The reality is that nobody has a monopoly on the truth.
A useful reflective exercise is to look up the stories of whistle-blowers and study them. It won’t take long to realise that some, albeit a minority, may not be genuine. Have some people resorted to whistleblowing to retaliate against another whistle-blower, and play the victim? Have some jumped on a bandwagon to help their careers? This may also lead to a reflection on managers who are labelled as bullies, when in fact; they may be straight talking people holding others to account, and simply being open.
This type of reflection raises uncomfortable, and ultimately helpful, questions. As a reminder as to why this is an important issue read up on the stories of people like Dr Kim Holt, Jade Taylor and Dr Raj Mattu (there are many more I could have cited), none of whom benefited in any way from speaking the truth and all suffered immensely.
Walk A Mile In My Shoes
As soon as whistleblowing is mentioned many people take a position based on strongly held views and beliefs. It’s helpful to try and see the situation from all perspectives, whatever your viewpoint or past experiences.
In workshops we do this by splitting the room down the middle and asking half to look at a whistleblowing scenario for the manager’s perspective and half of the room to look at it from the whistle-blower’s perspective. Then we switch the groups around with another scenario.
The benefits of this, and other related exercises are that, providing they are carried out in a safe and supportive environment, they create a cognitive dissonance. This enables people to re-evaluate their views and ‘walk in the shoes’ of others. Feedback from these exercises has included managers considering taking a different approach, and whistle-blowers reflecting on the wider perspective, e.g. that their immediate manager may be in a similar position to them.
Without making time to reflect, managers can miss out on valued team members and whistle-blowers can become hyper-vigilant, interpreting all approaches as potential threats. My experiences, on both sides of the fence, support this view. You only have to look at social media to see how this entrenchment plays out. When this happens nobody wins and patient safety continues to be compromised.
The reality is that the vast majority people strive to be accountable and to act transparently and in the best interests of patients. A combination of early interventions, reflection and deep learning are needed to prevent polarisation and suffering all round.
Taking This Forward Together
Whistleblowing isn’t a problem to be solved or managed, it’s an opportunity to learn and improve. The more we move away for labelling and stereotyping the more we will learn. Regardless of our position, role or perceived status, we all need to address this much more openly and explicitly, in a spirit of truth and reconciliation.