“Whistleblowing is good for business — responding effectively to concerns can save money and reputations and increase staff loyalty and productivity,” says a guide for employers produced by charity Protect.

No kidding. The CBI is fighting for survival following rape and sexual harassment allegations, the loss of (or suspension of engagement from) approaching 100 of its big-name members, and an admission that it failed to protect its staff, to train its managers, prioritise a healthy workplace culture, and get rid of toxic people.

Its crisis is financial, given reliance on members’ fees, and strategic — chancellor Jeremy Hunt said this week there was “no point” talking to the group. If the CBI survives it will be in a drastically smaller, rebranded and more humble form. Whatever the outcome, it will be used as a case study for what can go wrong for years to come.

One lesson is that all policies in the world won’t help you if no one uses them. Best practice, say experts, is to have a range of options to raise concerns or complaints, through line managers, HR departments, dedicated staff, and anonymous or external channels. The latter, some argue, should be a last resort — where resources are lacking, trust broken or there are difficulties managing a confidential or secure process.

The CBI ticked many HR boxes: it had grievance and whistleblowing policies. It had an anonymous complaints process. Some victims perhaps didn’t know about the procedures or didn’t trust them. The CBI has said concerns didn’t reach senior ranks and that it “tried to find resolution in sexual harassment cases” rather than sacking those concerned, a vicious circle which deterred others from coming forward.

Good on paper, bad in practice may be a more common problem than you think. Companies can be bizarrely coy about policies whose success rests on them being widely known. 56 per cent of UK listed companies don’t disclose an anti-sexual harassment policy, according to Equileap, compared to 40 per cent globally.

When it comes to whistleblowing or “speak up” policies, which act as a backstop to other grievance processes, Linklaters found in 2019 that all the FTSE 100 referred to having a channel but only 70 per cent made the details public.

Employees may not know about a whistleblowing channel that — despite a pretty narrow definition of who qualifies for protection under UK law — should give a broad picture of behaviour and identify areas of concern, when functioning right. Protect found in a 2021 YouGov survey that nearly half of staff didn’t know if their employer had a policy or not. Sectors required by regulation to have whistleblowing arrangements, like financial services, fared much better.

These channels, which have their genesis in safety concerns in the aviation sector, should scream that companies really want (and need) to receive information about potential wrongdoing. Protect cites examples of out-of-date policy and contact information. Linklaters noted that only 7 per cent of companies specified that anyone (including suppliers or the public, say) could make a report about potential wrongdoing, rather than limiting the system to employees or other workers.

None of this is helped by a UK legal framework that is out of date, which the government pledged to review in March. Whistleblowing law, focused on “public interest” concerns, doesn’t directly cover behaviour like harassment or bullying (though the financial regulator’s system does address workplace culture).

UK law offers employees protection from victimisation if they raise concerns but doesn’t cover contractors, volunteers and other types of workers. There also isn’t a broad requirement to have whistleblowing channels or to act on information, both introduced in Europe’s new directive for businesses with 50 or more workers.

“The UK framework doesn’t do anything to ensure that wrongdoing is rectified,” says David Lewis at Middlesex University. “The EU says that employers who receive evidence of wrongdoing have to act on it. In the UK, as long as you don’t victimise the whistleblower, you’re fine.”

The CBI’s scandal should prompt companies to consider not just their policies but how they are being promoted and used — or, perhaps most concerningly, if they simply aren’t.

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