The Employment Appeal Tribunal has upheld an employment tribunal decision that three e-mails raising concerns about the dangers of driving in snowy conditions together amounted to a qualifying disclosure for the purposes of the whistleblowing provisions of the Employment Rights Act 1996.

Although each e-mail was not a qualifying disclosure on its own, the three e-mails taken together amounted to such a disclosure. It did not matter that the last e-mail did not did not have the same recipient as the earlier two because the earlier communications were “embedded” in the later communication.

This business briefing outlines the protection given to whistleblowers at work under UK law.

What protection does the law give to whistleblowers? There is no financial cap on compensation in whistleblowing claims, and no requirement for a minimum period of service. Two levels of protection exist for whistleblowers:

  • Unfair dismissal. Dismissing an employee will be automatically unfair if the reason, or main reason, is that they have made a “protected disclosure”
  • Unlawful detriment. Workers are protected from being subject to any detriment on the grounds that they have made a “protected disclosure”. A detriment includes:
    • threats
    • disciplinary action
    • loss of work or pay, or
    • damage to career prospects

Who is a worker? The definition of a “worker” is wide and includes:

  • Agency workers
  • Freelance workers
  • Seconded workers
  • Trainees

When is a disclosure protected? The information disclosed must, in the reasonable belief of the worker, tend to show that one of the following has taken place, is taking place or is likely to take place:

  • A criminal offence
  • Breach of any legal obligation
  • Miscarriage of justice
  • Danger to the health and safety of an individual
  • Damage to the environment
  • The deliberate concealing of information about any of the above

Internal disclosures: If the whistleblower is acting in good faith, a disclosure to a business will be a protected disclosure.

External disclosures

  • Responsible third parties. If a worker reasonably believes a third party (for example, a client or supplier) is responsible for the wrongdoing, they can report if to that third party in good faith, without informing the business
  • Prescribed persons. There are a number of organisations that a worker can make a disclosure to in good faith, provided they believe the information is substantially true and concerns a matter within that person’s area of responsibility. They include:
    • HM Revenue & Customs
    • the Office of Fair Trading, and
    • the Health and Safety Executive
  • Legal advisers. Workers are entitled to disclose matters to their legal adviser while 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 and not for gain. Unless the matter is “exceptionally serious”, they must have already disclosed it to the business or a prescribed person, or believe that, if they do, evidence would be destroyed or they would suffer reprisals

Why is protection of whistleblowers important?

Internal risk control: Businesses have an interest in uncovering wrongdoing or dangerous practices within their organisation. A business is likely to want to manage what information (if any) is spread to the outside world. Encouraging the reporting of these types of issues through internal channels may help avoid:

  • Serious accidents
  • Fraud
  • Regulatory breaches

Avoiding litigation: Whistleblowing cases can involve significant management time and legal costs, which are not usually recoverable.

Reputational damage and staff morale: An external disclosure of suspected malpractice, especially to the media, can lead to negative publicity for the business and damage staff morale. Any claim by a whistleblower who believes they have suffered reprisals is likely to have a similar effect.

Avoiding criminal liability: A business will be guilty of failing to prevent bribery if a person associated with it (for example, an employee) bribes another person with the intention of obtaining or retaining business or a business advantage. A business will have a defence if it can show that the business had “adequate procedures” in place to prevent bribery. The government has published guidance indicating that this would include having effective whistleblowing procedures in place that encourage the reporting of bribery.

Practical steps to help reduce business risk: Implement a whistleblowing policy that enables staff to confidentially report concerns about:

  • Illegal
  • Unethical, or
  • Otherwise unacceptable conduct.

Ensure that it enables the worker to bypass the level of management where the problem exists.

  • Publicise the policy internally and train any managers on it. Make it clear that victimisation of a whistleblower will lead to disciplinary action
  • Investigate disclosures promptly and keep the whistleblower informed of progress where possible. A lack of contact with the whistleblower may lead them to make an external disclosure
  • Do not rely on confidentiality clauses to prevent external disclosures, as they are unenforceable if the disclosure is protected. Taking action against a whistleblower for breach of confidence may amount to an unlawful detriment

The content of this Business Briefing is for information only and does not constitute legal advice. It states the law as at February 2014. We recommend that specific professional advice is obtained on any particular matter. We do not accept responsibility for any loss arising as a result of the use of the information contained in this briefing.