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Freshfields Risk & Compliance

| 5 minutes read

WorkLife 2.0: Whistleblowing Survey Report – UK data suggests decline in willingness to speak up

For the most recent in our series of whistleblowing reports, we collected the responses of over 2,500 individuals in the UK, the US, France, Germany and Hong Kong to a survey on whistleblowing. The report considers the global trends that we found in the survey responses. In this blog post, we focus on the specific trends that we identified in the responses from managers in the UK.

Overall, the UK results are consistent with our finding that there has been a global decline in willingness to speak up when compared to the results of survey responses in 2017.

Willingness to report

From our survey, it appears that, although many UK businesses have whistleblowing policies and procedures in place, employees are not being encouraged to take active steps to report their concerns. Of the jurisdictions surveyed, the UK had the highest proportion of respondents who reported that a whistleblowing procedure exists at their workplace and that 'everyone would know what to do'. However, only 21 per cent of UK respondents felt that their workplace actively encouraged their employees to speak up, and only 13 per cent of UK respondents had actively blown the whistle. Nevertheless, this shows a slight increase from 10 per cent of UK respondents who reported having actively blown the whistle in 2017.

This overall lack of willingness to speak up within the workplace may perhaps be emblematic of a lack of trust in internal whistleblowing arrangements. This is also evidenced by the increase in willingness of UK employees to use alternative whistleblowing routes, such as reporting to a regulator (21 per cent in 2020 compared to 17 per cent in 2017), and a decline of 8 per cent since 2017 in likelihood of reporting an incident to a manager first. Only 9 per cent of UK respondents reported that they would go to their direct boss if they felt that the response to the wrongdoing was not handled properly in the first instance, which compares to a figure of 17 per cent in 2017.

Even more worryingly for employers, there has been an increase in the number of UK employees who say that they would turn to social media to report concerns, particularly amongst younger employees if it was felt that their complaint was mishandled.

Concerns about possible detriment also appear to be prevalent, with the survey results showing an increase of 5 per cent since 2017 in concerns that employment might be terminated after a complaint. Fifty-three per cent of UK respondents also felt that their colleagues would be discouraged from whistleblowing by concerns that it might harm their reputation or future career prospects.

Relationships with colleagues

The UK survey results also reveal a concerning level of distrust between co-workers. 44 per cent of UK respondents believed that an established whistleblowing procedure introduces a risk that employees would be encouraged to make false allegations. This is much higher than other jurisdictions surveyed. For example, in Germany only 31 per cent of respondents considered this likely. The topic of potential financial incentives for whistleblowing typically raises strong views as to the impact on whistleblowers’ motives, and this remains true for UK respondents in the most recent survey: 45 per cent of UK participants thought that offering financial incentives for whistleblowing would encourage fake claims, compared with 33 per cent in France and 18 per cent in the US.

Knowing the identity of a whistleblower appeared to be of particular importance to younger employees in the UK, with 77 per cent of those aged 24 and under, and 43 per cent of 25 to 34-year-olds, considering it important. This percentage continued to decrease as respondents moved through the age groups, with only 21 per cent of those 55 or over considering it important to know a whistleblower’s identity. The apparent importance placed by some age groups on knowing a whistleblower’s identity provides an interesting contrast to the 51 per cent of UK respondents who believed that concerns around preservation of anonymity would deter individuals from raising an issue internally within an organisation.

The survey results suggest that UK employees have limited confidence in the motives of their whistleblowing colleagues, which is particularly concerning given the current circumstances. The value of trust within a workplace is increasingly important in the face of the growing macro-economic concerns, declining mental health and concerns over decreased job security introduced by the pandemic. Working from home has in some respects reduced authentic human interactions, with many new joiners having not had the opportunities to meet their colleagues face-to-face and build the necessary support structures. Equally, the value of trust is just as important for those who cannot work from home, who need to feel able to raise concerns about the safety of their working environment.

Positive signs?

The results of the survey with respect to COVID-19 are not all negative. Twenty-four per cent of UK respondents felt that their whistleblowing procedures would need updating in response to the pandemic, indicating that the vast majority of respondents have confidence in the policies in place, despite widespread changes in the working environment. Nevertheless, now is a good moment for employers to step back and consider whether enhancements can be made to their policies to reflect changes such as an increase in remote working, or adaptations to the working environment that have been necessary for those who cannot work from home.

Survey respondents were also asked whether they felt that the period of lockdown had impacted whistleblowing. Roughly half of respondents believed that the lockdown had not had any impact on whistleblowing, and 16 per cent of UK employees thought that whistleblowing had increased (with 3 per cent believing that there had been a significant increase in whistleblowing). Conversely, just under one third (32 per cent) of UK respondents believed that whistleblowing had decreased during remote working, with 16 per cent believing this decrease had been significant.

Twenty-one per cent of UK respondents suggested that employees may feel emboldened to speak up as a result of the physical distance between themselves and colleagues. Interestingly, though, this physical distance may also be a reason behind the apparent decline in overall reporting, as 22 per cent of UK survey respondents thought that an increase in remote working would lead to fewer incidents that require whistleblowing. Alternatively, a more concerning explanation for this downward trend may be the decreased visibility of misconduct or decreased engagement levels in the current working environment.

Actions for employers

A decline in employees’ confidence in whistleblowing, and particularly their confidence in using internal arrangements, is a worrying sign for employers. The apparent drop in whistleblowing between 2017 and 2020 is particularly surprising considering that certain cultural events, such as the #MeToo movement, have raised awareness and expectations of acceptable standards of behaviour, and might have been expected to also increase the prevalence of whistleblowing over the past three years. The results suggest that work remains to be done to encourage speaking up and to create a culture where raising concerns is encouraged and supported. The uncertainty and impact of the pandemic makes addressing cultural issues particularly challenging, as the workforce adapts to a working environment which is significantly altered.


whistleblowing, employment, europe