Workers who complain 'put careers in jeopardy': Advice service to aid whistleblowers

FRAUD, corruption and financial malpractice are the main sources of complaints made to a new legal advice service for whistleblowers, Public Concern at Work.

A report of its first six months, published today, shows the largest sources of concerns raised by staff are the National Health Service, local authorities and education.

The centre had requests for help from 260 people, 186 of them with concerns that were in the public interest. Almost half of them worked in the public sector, 12 per cent in the voluntary sector and 44 per cent in the private sector. In the public sector, 34 complaints concerned the NHS, 30 local authorities and 23 education.

One surprising finding is that charities and care organisations such as residential homes for the elderly and children, provoked many anxious employees to seek legal advice. There were about 18 representations about charities and 12 about care-providers.

The biggest causes of concern were fraud, corruption, public safety and work safety. The remaining complaints were about racial and sexual discrimination at work and the abuse of children and patients in care.

The most worrying trend which emerged across all sectors was that employees were not encouraged to raise their concerns. Some staff have been put on leave or threatened with disciplinary action when they sounded the alarm.

'Our caseload shows many managers still instinctively go for the messenger rather than deal with the message,' said Guy Dehn, director of Public Concern at Work, a London-based charity staffed by solicitors and advisers who give free legal advice.

The report said that where employers came across a public danger - a threat to the environment or a dangerous working practice - their first concern was often that it would cost money to rectify.

Employees were equally afraid to sound the alarm on financial malpractice despite the fact that in these cases they would be saving their organisation money. Mr Dehn, a barrister, said: 'Our impression is that the pervading culture in many organisations in the UK is that staff should mind their own business, come what may. This is in stark contrast to developments in the United States where leading companies have begun to reward their staff for minding the company's business.'

The report gave an example of a New York stockbroker, Bear Sterns, whose employees receive 5 per cent of any losses they prevent when they report financial malpractice. The company treats all reports in strict confidence and does not criticise those who raise false alarms. In the past year, two of its employees received awards of more than dollars 60,000 ( pounds 40,000). British workers who raise concerns, as a matter of conscience or loyalty, run the risk of damaging their careers - even losing their jobs.

One employee at a hotel discovered that his manager was on the take and that several thousand pounds had not been processed through the accounting system. Shortly after the concern was raised with the regional manager, the employee was the only person to be made redundant in the reorganisation of the hotel. The employee found another job but contacted Public Concern at Work who raised the issue with the hotel's chief executive. As the company instigated an audit investigation, the manager resigned.

In another case, a nurse at a private residential home was told by one of her staff that another nurse was abusing patients. She passed on the concern to the management who investigated but did not find it proven. The nurse was then disciplined for misrepresenting the facts. She contacted Public Concern at Work which is advising her on how best to fight her case.

Advice Service Second Report; Public Concern at Work, 42 Kingsway, London WC2; pounds 6.

Leading article, page 13