As recent law graduates kick-starting our legal careers at Protect , the first few weeks has certainly been an eye-opening experience – we have learnt a lot in our first month on the job!

Although we had of course heard of whistleblowing, largely through shocking media news stories, within days of training on the Protect advice line, we quickly came to learn that whistleblowing is a part of everyday life and can affect any one of us in the workplace.  Not every whistleblowing concern is on the Edward-Snowden-scale and makes front page news. What may perhaps seem like a small concern, can actually have a significant and wide-reaching impact on our lives and the lives of others.

This is why whistleblowing’s protection in law is important to ensure a transparent and ethical working environment. Protect’s advice-line is integral to promoting a ‘speak-up’ culture within organisations to mitigate risk early on, and support whistleblowers throughout the challenging and courageous process of raising their concerns.

At Protect, we don’t just recite the law but we empathise with our callers. In our first week, we attended a training session given by Protect’s Senior Legal Consultant and former CEO Cathy James on ‘empathetic call handling.’  At Protect, we offer legal advice as well as practical support and reassurance that callers are taking the right steps. A large part of the Protect training is understanding how to listen, emphasise and fully understand ‘the whole picture’ of a whistleblowing concern which are often very complex.  An adviser then weighs up the options available to the caller, which can only be done by understanding their concerns and tailoring the advice accordingly to individual needs.

The practical effects of this has been evident from the ‘sifting’ stage of our training, which precedes the ‘advice’ stage. This involves discussing the caller’s concerns in detail and asking relevant questions around the law of whistleblowing. We then discuss the nature of the call and the kind of advice that can be given with a senior adviser which ensures that highest quality advice is given to each and every caller. Each year, Protect handles around 3,000 whistleblowing cases, and in its 25-year history has supported more than 40,000 whistleblowers, which is impressive! Advisers also regularly get back in touch with callers to check how they are, how they are progressing with situations and providing further support if necessary.

The weekly advice-line meetings have also been an incredibly useful addition to the training process. These meetings involve the advice-line team getting together to talk over their cases. This ensures that the team provides consistent advice, allows for different perspectives on certain issues which may have been overlooked at the time, and it ultimately allows advisers to spot trends in the type of concerns being raised.  For example, we have seen a spike in calls from the charity sector this year as well as a rise in calls from the education sector.  This shows that the advice-line is more than just providing one-off advice, going beyond the individual to look at the bigger picture of the types of concerns people are raising and how they are being dealt with. This feeds into our policy work which aims to improve the protection of whistleblowers.

Overall, we have learnt A LOT in the short time we have been here and looking forward to progressing with our training to help whistleblowers in need of support.

In a bid to transform and improve the whistleblowing and speak up culture of charities, Protect is reaching out to offer its help and expertise in a pilot it hopes will transform the sector.

In June, Protect partnered with the Charity Commission to launch a six-month advice line for whistleblowers working in the charity sector, and calls have risen by 16% this year. If a charity worker or volunteer has concerns over wrongdoing and wants independent advice on how to raise it effectively, they can call Protect.

Now Protect wants to engage charities with its whistleblowing 360 Benchmark tool – which tests the whistleblowing culture of an organisation – in a bid to offer further support and is offering the newly developed 360 Benchmark to charities with 50 plus staff on a ‘first come, first served basis’.

Chief Executive Francesca West said, “Following the very well documented Oxfam scandal, we recognise there is much to be done to support the Third Sector. We are already working with the Charity Commission operating a pilot advice line for charity workers. We now want to offer our 360 Benchmark as a pilot to a cohort of charities to help them understand where they may be falling short on best whistleblowing or speak up practice.”

Earlier this year, an Oxfam whistleblower resigned claiming Oxfam were still failing to deal with harassment and bullying at its head office despite pledging zero-tolerance to misconduct following the Haiti scandal.

The whistleblower told The Times she did not believe its public claims it was reforming and in her resignation letter said, “I am very sorry to be having to leave Oxfam but I can no longer work in this environment. [We are] telling the public that we are doing all we can to change the culture here and protect people . . . It feels to me like that simply is not true.”

Charities are being invited to a roundtable taking place in October where they will be able to sign up to the pilot which will be open to 30-40 charities with 50-plus employees. Upon completion their results will be analysed and discussed anonymously.

If you are interested in taking part, please contact before Friday 19 September.

An interesting recent case at the Employment Tribunal (Bilsbrough v Berry Marketing Ltd) looked at victimising of a potential whistleblower.

In this case, Mr Bilsbrough, a client service executive, had been researching how to blow the whistle to the Information Commissioner, and was suspended. A strict interpretation of the law might suggest he was not yet a whistleblower as he hadn’t yet blown the whistle (made a disclosure) and therefore he was not protected. However, the tribunal found that Mr Bilsbrough was suspended for considering how to blow the whistle and this was not justified. The Tribunal held that researching how to whistleblow was an integral part of making a disclosure, and Mr Bilsbrough had suffered unlawful detriment because the employer believed that he had considered making a protected disclosure.

Although this case doesn’t create a precedent, it shows the Tribunal’s willingness to consider wider issues, including human rights to freedom of expression. The Tribunal noted that if a person cannot consider making a disclosure without the risk of sanction, even if they then decide not to make a disclosure, that would have a “chilling effect”. They held that whistleblowing law should be read so as to be compatible with human rights.

The judgment said: ‘In a case such as this, if an employee does not know how to make a disclosure to a regulator, he or she will have no option but to research how to do so.’ It added: ‘If an employee is behaving responsibly in preparing to make a disclosure…then the dismissal of such a person or subjecting them to a detriment because of that research would be an interference with that employee’s right to freedom of expression.’

Protect would like to see the protections for whistleblowers broadened to include potential whistleblowers, as in this case, as well as perceived whistleblowers (those who are wrongly assumed to have blown the whistle).  We’re calling for a wider review of the Public Interest Disclosure Act, (PIDA) to reflect the changes in the workplace in the last 20 years since its introduction, and to make sure the widest possible group of individuals are protected when they try to speak up to stop harm.

Read the case in full

New guidance by the Law Society on NDAs – Non-disclosure agreements – has recommended Protect as an advice centre for whistleblowers as ‘whistleblowing law is complicated’.

NDAs, sometimes called a confidentiality clause, or gagging clause, allows the employer and worker to resolve a dispute confidentially without going to a tribunal or court.  An individual may also be asked to sign a confidentiality agreement before starting a project, to stop business secrets and sensitive information from becoming public.

NDAs have hit the headlines in recent months over the Harvey Weinstein and Philip Green scandals and allegations of covering up bullying, sexual harassment and discrimination.

The Law Society guidance, ‘NDAs and confidentiality agreements – what you need to know as a worker’ makes clear an NDA cannot be used to stop whistleblowing in the public interest. The guidance also recognises ‘whistleblowing law is complicated’ so whistleblowers expert advice from solicitors, or Protect.

Protect Chief Executive, Francesca West said, “We are pleased to be promoted by the Law Society who recognise our work supporting whistleblowers with expert legal advice. Whistleblowing legislation is complex, as are many of the cases we handle. The advice we provide to nearly 3,000 individuals each year is unique as it is legally privileged and is focussed on supporting the individual to speak up and stop harm.”

Protect have spoken out against the improper use of NDAs, and invited to give evidence to both the Women & Equalities Select Committee and the Government’s consultation on NDAs where we stated a need for clearer, plainer, English surrounding NDAs, a stronger regulatory framework to tackle toxic workplace culture and a requirement for lawyers to explain the limits of NDAs on future disclosures.

In July, the government announced it would open a consultation into proposed legislation.