Leading Article: The need to encourage the whistle-blowers

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LOYALTY is not a simple concept. If you believe that your boss is corrupt, your company negligent or your government untruthful, true loyalty may involve a technical act of betrayal. Loyalties to people, principles and institutions often clash. Yet the whistle-blower, no matter how honourable his or her intentions, or how vindicated by results, is often treated like the schoolchild who sneaks to teacher. Many human tragedies ensue, and many abuses remain unreported.

Public Concern at Work is a charity set up last year to provide legal advice to whistle-blowers. In its first six months, according to its report published today, 260 people sought legal advice, of whom 70 per cent were concerned about serious illegality or dangers in the workplace. They came equally from the public and private sectors, and 12 per cent from the voluntary sector.

The report makes melancholy reading, with its cases of loyal employees victimised for reporting abuses that may be costing the firm money or endangering lives. Many managers, it says, go for the messenger rather than dealing with the message. 'The prevailing culture in many organisations in the UK,' it laments, 'is that staff should mind their own business, come what may.' The report contrasts practice in the United States, where some leading companies now reward their staff for reporting financial malpractice. Even there, however, there have been many cases of whistle-blowers being victimised, going bankrupt and attempting suicide - and of others who have delayed reporting fraud in order to maximise their reward.

Punishing the messenger has always been a shortsighted reaction to bad news. Enlightened institutions need a balance between the healthy group loyalties that are necessary to any organisation, and the checks and balances which ensure that these do not protect corrupt or negligent members. They also need procedures for weeding out malicious cranks who are bound to exploit complaints procedures.

In its short life, Public Concern at Work has done valuable work in helping individuals and raising awareness of the problem. Broader change will not come until more companies and institutions come to see that it is in their own interest to encourage staff to report abuses. Many well-known scandals and disasters could have been avoided if that had been better understood.