2021ii24, Wednesday: freedom.

10 days of self-isolation is over, and the seaside beckons. Also: what the Emperor's New Clothes can tell us about whistleblowing.

2021ii24, Wednesday: freedom.
The Thames Estuary. This morning. After 10 days indoors, I promise you this was like the Caribbean to me…

Short thought: My personal (and family) lockdown is lifted. My symptoms are pretty much gone. A quick drive down to the sea this morning felt simply wonderful. There’s nothing like fresh air and wide horizons when the furthest vista you’ve seen for 10 days is your own backyard fence. Joy, unconfined. Literally.

Someone is right on the internet: I’ve long had a professional interest in whistleblowing. As an investigator, a great deal of work comes from them. As a barrister whose practice includes employment, whistleblowing forms part of a surprisingly large proportion of claims. They can be tricky to bring home, since one has to prove not just detriment (or dismissal) but that the whistleblowing disclosure is the main (for dismissal) or a significant (for detriment) cause of the employer’s decision. And the larger the employer, the trickier that causation can be to show.

Obviously, every situation varies. And not all - even not most - whistleblowers are the “keep my identity secret” kind. Most disclosures are overt: employers sometimes forget that if an employee raises a concern about whether the company is acting lawfully, or safely, and does so with some belief that it’s in the public interest, that’s whistleblowing - even if all it amounts to is telling their boss to her face what the problem is because they don’t think she knows, and she should.

But in my experience there’s a constant: most whistleblowers aren’t doing it for fun. They’re doing it because they think they have to, or ought to. And no-one sues on it unless they don’t have any choice.

This is a point made by Margaret Heffernan, author of Wilful Blindness (a book I adore, and which should be on the shelf, or Kindle, of anyone interested in how cognitive bias - ours and others’ - can play hell with our decisions and lives), in a recent FT piece. (Sorry, the paywall will only allow three clicks on this. Wish it were otherwise). She notes:

While the popular image of the whistleblower is typically an eccentric loner, the truth is more prosaic: whistleblowers are likely to be loyal employees, passionate about high standards, who go outside their organisation as a last resort when nobody takes them seriously. They aren’t defiant troublemakers; they’re disappointed believers.

I agree. Which isn’t to say that some aren’t eccentric to start with, or perhaps more often driven to eccentricity, even obsession, by the whole experience. But her point is a straightforward one. Organisations are fundamentally inimical to people pointing out problems; yet without them, the organisation can’t possibly improve. As Heffernan points out, this is a “tragic waste of knowledge”: not just for the organisation, but for all its stakeholders.

It boils down to this. Everyone knows the story of the Emperor’s New Clothes. I used to use it in training sessions; the laugh, as I described the child shouting out from the crowd, “Hey mister, I can see your bum in that,” was a critical means of opening the door to a discussion of why problems needed to be shared; and acted to reinforce my promises that if it was a choice between my job and breaking a whistleblower’s confidentiality unless I was compelled by law to do so, I’d be the one taking the walk.

Sure, it’s funny. But everyone who’s ever heard that story has asked themselves what happened to the child afterwards. Did she get a cookie? A pat on the head? Or did several large soldiers pop round to have a word with her parents later, to drive home the message about it being safer if you bring up your kid to be seen and not heard?

My cynical side always suspects the latter. And certainly organisations tend in that direction: I’ve several times had senior managers tell me I had to disclose the name of a whistleblower. I never have, including the time a CEO threatened to fire me if I didn’t. But honestly, as Heffernan says, a smart company will listen first.