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Speak up, then watch your back

9th March 2020

Telling employees it’s safe to become a whistleblower – because we’re living a world where your organisation now has processes to support you – clearly isn’t enough.

It’s five years since the Freedom to Speak Up review by Sir Robert Francis highlighted how whistleblowing in the NHS were being ignored, recommending a voluntary scheme run by a network of internal Speak Up guardians as a quicker, easier alternative to trying to introduce new whistleblowing laws. In other words, the responsibility for listening to concerns and following up with running investigations has been left in the hands of NHS Trusts themselves.

The weaknesses in this softer, compromise position have been exposed by the reality of management politics at the West Suffolk NHS Foundation Trust. Confidential meetings with the Care Quality Commission (CQC) had been used by doctors last year to express their concerns about patient safety – and in particular, their inability to whistleblow because of fears of disciplinary action. They highlighted an instance when a member of staff had written anonymously to the family of a patient who’d died while undergoing treatment at the hospital. The Trust responded by demanding that doctors should be fingerprinted in order to identify the letter’s author.

There was no process of support for a whistleblower, instead the Speak Up guardian appeared to be used to lead a “witch hunt”. The CQC report described how staff didn’t believe the senior team would hear or accept anything negative, any feedback at all. There wasn’t any faith in investigations carried out internally into any kind of employee or HR issues.

The reluctance to see employers involved in complex, highly pressurised sectors like healthcare, being taken to court is understandable. Formalising channels so that they point towards legal channels and the time and cost involved has the potential to cause a cycle of serious disruption.

By comparison, any level of investment in building trust has to be worthwhile. For the Speak Up network to be effective there has to be a wider culture of trust around it. First of all, especially with situations like that at West Suffolk in mind, there needs to be external – and independent – involvement in investigations of people issues. There has to be more attention paid to the range of opportunities that staff have for honest and open conversations. Are they just expected to confess all to their line manager – and is that going to work? Mediation needs to be the norm, not the worst-case scenario. Staff at all levels, and especially at the top, need to be aware of the importance of Conversational Integrity: listening skills, empathy, self-awareness, the fundamental toolkit that helps people appreciate and understand each other – the kind of formula that suddenly turns anxiety, frustration and anger into positive action and change that’s supported and important for everyone involved with the organisation.

Arran Heal, Managing Director, CMP