Amended to take account of Court of Appeal's decision in NHS Manchester v Fecitt on employer's liability for the actions of employees.
A quick guide to the law on whistleblowing in employment, why it is important, and key strategies for employers and workers.
This is one of a series of quick guides: see Quick guides.
Employers have an interest in uncovering wrongdoing or dangerous practices within the organisation, while also managing what information (if any) is spread to the outside world. Encouraging the reporting of these matters through internal channels may help avoid serious accidents, fraud, regulatory breaches or financial scandals. In a listed company, it is part of the obligation under the UK Corporate Governance Code (www.practicallaw.com/2-502-1888) to maintain a sound system of internal control (see Practice note, Effective whistleblowing policies: Listed company requirements (www.practicallaw.com/8-422-5228)).
The law protects whistleblowers whose employer dismisses them or subjects them to detriment on the ground that they have made a protected disclosure (www.practicallaw.com/8-200-3427). Cases can involve significant management time and legal costs, which are usually not recoverable. Such cases are not subject to the usual qualifying period of employment for unfair dismissal claims, or the usual statutory cap on unfair dismissal compensation.
An external disclosure of suspected malpractice, especially to the press, will lead to negative publicity for the employer and damage staff morale. Any claim brought by a whistleblower who believes they have suffered reprisals is likely to have a similar effect. (See Article, Managing a media crisis: preventing reputational damage, PLC Magazine, June 2004 (www.practicallaw.com/7-102-8684).)
The Bribery Act 2010, which came into force in July 2011, contains a new strict liability corporate offence that applies where an organisation fails to prevent bribery by a person "associated" with it, including employees (section 7). The organisation has a defence if it can show that it had in place "adequate procedures" designed to prevent bribery. Guidance (www.practicallaw.com/0-505-4865) from the Ministry of Justice stresses that this would include having effective whistleblowing procedures that encourage the reporting of bribery. (For further information, see Bribery Act 2010: toolkit (www.practicallaw.com/9-503-9451) and Practice note, Bribery Act 2010: issues for employment lawyers (www.practicallaw.com/5-504-5185).)
Protection for whistleblowers was introduced by the Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998 (PIDA), which amended the Employment Rights Act 1996 (ERA 1996) (see Practice note, Whistleblower protection (www.practicallaw.com/8-200-3903)).
The dismissal (including constructive dismissal (www.practicallaw.com/8-200-3106)) of an employee will be automatically unfair if the reason, or principal reason, is that they have made a protected disclosure (section 103A, ERA 1996; see When is a disclosure protected?). The same applies to selection for redundancy.
There is no qualifying minimum period of service, and tribunals are not restricted by the usual upper limit on compensation. Whistleblowing claims are sometimes used tactically for this reason.
It is unlawful for an employer to subject one of its workers (www.practicallaw.com/6-200-3640) to a detriment (including threats, disciplinary action, loss of work or pay, or damage to career prospects) on the ground that they have made a protected disclosure (section 47B(1), ERA 1996; see When is a disclosure protected?). The concept of a "worker" in the whistleblowing legislation is broad and includes, among others, agency workers (www.practicallaw.com/3-200-3024), freelance workers, seconded workers, homeworkers and trainees, as well as employees. (See Practice note, Whistleblower protection: Who is protected? (www.practicallaw.com/8-200-3903).)
An employer is not vicariously liable for reprisals meted out to a whistleblower by colleagues or other third parties (see Practice note, Whistleblower protection: No vicarious liability for detriment caused by employees (www.practicallaw.com/8-200-3903)). A failure to protect the worker from such reprisals may itself amount to a detriment by the employer, although the employer can avoid liability if it shows that the reason for the failure was something other than the making of the protected disclosure (see Practice note, Whistleblower protection: Causation and burden of proof (www.practicallaw.com/8-200-3903)).
The information disclosed must, in the reasonable belief of the worker, tend to show that one of following has occurred, is occurring, or is likely to occur:
PIDA encourages disclosure to the employer (internal disclosure) as the primary method of whistleblowing. Disclosure to an employer is a protected disclosure if it is made in good faith. (Section 43C(1), ERA 1996; see Practice note, Whistleblower protection: When is a disclosure protected? (www.practicallaw.com/8-200-3903).)
Responsible third parties. Where the worker reasonably believes a third party (such as a client or supplier) is responsible for the wrongdoing, they can report it to that third party in good faith, without telling the employer.
Prescribed persons. Parliament has approved a list of "prescribed persons" to whom workers can make disclosures in good faith, provided the worker believes the information is substantially true and concerns a matter within that person's area of responsibility. They include HMRC, the Health and Safety Executive and the Office of Fair Trading. There is no need to alert the employer. (See Checklist, Whistleblowing: prescribed persons (www.practicallaw.com/9-202-3378).)
Government ministers. Workers employed by a person or body appointed under statute can report matters in good faith to the relevant minister.
Legal advisers. Workers can disclose matters to their legal adviser in the course of obtaining advice.
Wider disclosure. Disclosure to anyone else is only protected if the worker believes the information is substantially true and acts in good faith, not for gain. Unless the matter is "exceptionally serious", they must have already disclosed it to the employer or a prescribed person, or believe that, if they do, evidence would be destroyed or they would suffer reprisals. Disclosure to that person must also be reasonable.