Leader: Support for whistleblowing is integral to transparency and trust

The utilities sector has a pretty clean record when it comes to whistleblowing events in recent years.

According to the charity Public Concern at Work, which offers advice and support to whistleblowers, just 2 per cent of the calls it received in 2014/15 related to perceived misdemeanours in the utilities sector – amounting to only 16 calls. Meanwhile, hundreds of calls were made relating to the health sector in the same period.

However, is the utilities’ record in this department quite the good thing it may at first seem? Whistleblowing expert Wendy Addison says not. Speaking at Utility Week’s HR Forum, Addison – who represents the international whistleblowing research unit and lectures at three UK universities on the subject – said the low number of calls could well mask problems with whistleblowing policies in utilities.

Her concerns grew when she looked at the published whistleblowing policies for firms attending the Forum – comprising a broad range of utility types. The vast majority, she said, displayed poor practice in terms of their processes and, more worryingly, in a number of cases displayed policies that had remained unchanged since 2010. Laws on whistleblowing have changed significantly since then, she warned. New rules on employee and employer rights – especially relating to the definition of the term “worker” – undoubtedly leave firms with outdated policies vulnerable, Addison added.

Creating cultures and processes that actively encourage and facilitate whistleblowing may go against the grain for a sector working to clean up its public image and restore trust. Any rise in the number of reported requests for whistleblowing advice and support from bodies such as Public Concern at Work would undoubtedly be seized upon by mainstream media outlets as an indication that the sector is rotten at its core, not a reflection of pro-transparency.

But, of course, the flipside to this concern is that utilities must be absolutely sure their position on transparency and rooting out unethical practices is unimpeachable. Any suggestion that it is not endangers the sector’s fragile progress on rebuilding public trust – something it can ill-afford given the many challenges ahead for both the energy and water markets, which will require close consumer engagement.

 

• A full report on discussions at the HR Forum will feature in next week’s issue.