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HR issues dominate complaints from whistleblowers

3 May 2018 By Miriam Kenner

Reports of sexual harassment or abuse up 89 per cent, research finds

HR-related issues topped the list of complaints made by whistleblowers last year, comprising nearly 30 per cent of reports to UK financial sector whistleblowing hotlines, new research has found. 

Expolink’s annual benchmarking report, which covered more than 600 organisations worldwide and examined 13,377 original incident reports, discovered that breaches of duty of care, grievances with colleagues or managers, gross misconduct and unfair dismissal were the main HR-related complaints flagged. HR was the largest reporting category across 11 of the research’s top 13 UK sectors.

The report also found that whistleblowing calls in general from the British financial sector surged 41 per cent in 2017.

John Wilson, chief executive at whistleblowing hotline service provider Expolink, said “the “FCA’s [Financial Conduct Authority] new whistleblowing rules, which took effect in 2016, have encouraged companies affected by them to review and strengthen this area”.

Meanwhile, reports relating to sexual harassment or abuse rose by 89 per cent year-on-year and by 236 per cent compared with the previous quarter. The researchers suggested that this was likely linked to increased awareness around the issue, sparked by the likes of the #MeToo movement. 

Recent scandals exposing corruption and unlawful activity in large organisations, from Hollywood and the Presidents Club dinner, among others, have been revealed by whistleblowers. 

Meanwhile, 2016’s Panama Papers leak – which revealed widespread tax avoidance – and more recent allegations of data misuse by Cambridge Analytica and Facebook, alongside the investigation of Barclays chief executive Jes Staley for allegedly attempting to uncover the identity of a whistleblower at the bank, have all highlighted the potential power of whistleblowing. 

Wilson said such cases became public as many employees felt ignored when they raised their concerns internally. These cases, and the ensuing publicity, have shone a light on “highly toxic cultures, abuse of power, seeming disregard for the security of personal data and fraud on a massive scale”, he added.

This “encouraged people to examine their own employers more objectively, and speak out if they see or suspect unethical behaviour”, he said.   

In January, for the first time, the Employment Appeal Tribunal found in favour of an employee seeking to bring a whistleblowing claim against her co-workers in the employment tribunal where the detriment happened outside of Great Britain. In Bamieh v EULEX Kosovo and Ors, the appeal judge ruled that, in exceptional circumstances, an employee can now bring such a whistleblowing claim.

Meanwhile, the European Commission recently proposed to strengthen EU-wide rules protecting corporate whistleblowers who have reported relevant protected disclosures, an acknowledgment of the need for better protection of whistleblowers when exposing corruption. 

These proposals aim to provide safer channels for individuals across Europe to report wrongdoing, and protection against dismissal, demotion and other forms of whistleblower victimisation. 

Under the plans, EU member states would have to train public authorities on whistleblowing, and companies with more than 50 employees or an annual turnover of more than €10m would have to introduce internal procedures to handle whistleblowing. 

The rules would reverse the burden of proof in legal cases, so that the organisation must prove that it is not penalising the whistleblower, and in judicial proceedings whistleblowers would be exempt from liability for disclosing protected information. Remedies would include free advice and prevention from harassment and dismissal, according to the European Commission. 

European Commission first vice president Frans Timmermans said: “Many recent scandals may never have come to light if insiders hadn't had the courage to speak out. But those who did took enormous risks.

“We can better detect and prevent harm to the public interest such as fraud, corruption and corporate tax avoidance, or damage to people's health and the environment. There should be no punishment for doing the right thing.”

The amended FCA rules require certain financial firms to set up procedures to urge staff to inform the relevant team about any internal misconduct in regulated activity.

The FCA’s website noted that whistleblowing information had helped it to issue fines and warning letters to businesses and individuals.

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