'We need to talk about whistleblowing'

The FE sector has not sufficiently considered the role of the whistleblower in relation to its organisations, writes Dame Ruth Silver

Ruth Silver

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Whistleblowing is an almost taboo subject among leaders. While many prefer not to think of it, it is, for me, a critical issue within further education, as it is elsewhere. This was why it was chosen as the topic for last week’s 2018 Further Education Trust for Leadership Lecture (FETL). We wanted to challenge that outlook and encourage leaders to think openly and critically about the prevailing cultures within their institutions.

The lecture was a resounding success. Mark Stein, professor of leadership and management at the University of Leicester, offered an engaging account of the stigmatisation of whistleblowers, arguing that whistleblowers are vilified not merely because they represent the "other", set up in opposition to the organisation, but also because they represent the "lost, good self" of the organisation. In other words, whistleblowers are stigmatised in part because they demonstrate to colleagues that they have lost touch with the problems of their organisation, failed to live up to its values, and colluded, albeit passively, in the misdemeanours of others.

Critical engagement 

The discussion that followed was fascinating, with real-life whistleblowers offering insight into the treatment they faced, which ranged from verbal abuse to threats to life. What was missing, despite a respectable showing from within the sector, was the active participation of FE leaders in the debate. I would have liked to have seen more evidence of critical engagement with the issues from our own clan. I fear this lack of engagement may be indicative of a sector which has not thought particularly deeply about the role of the whistleblower in relation to its organisations.

This matters for three main reasons. First, policy on whistleblowing is a touchstone for organisational culture. We see everywhere, from Hillsborough to the Mid-Staffordshire NHS Trust crisis, the challenges faced by whistleblowers. With little, if anything, to gain, they risk their career, their livelihood and their reputation. It is unsurprising that the whistleblowers who do come forward are exceptional individuals. The choice for leaders is whether they are treated as in opposition to their organisation or given a safe space in which they are enabled and encouraged to speak up.

Fiscal constraint

Second, the shifting geography of the sector, driven by fiscal constraint, the process of area reviews and other factors, is creating fertile ground for whistleblowing. Many colleagues will have been through bruising mergers and restructures. Many will have seen examples of management behaviour that fell below the ethical standards we expect in the sector. Some may have felt a need to report this behaviour and perhaps even a few will have acted on this. We need to be aware of this, particularly as we restructure, and ensure there is space for it.

Third, as Professor Stein showed, we need fresh thinking when it comes to whistleblowers and their relation to our organisations. We need to be brave enough to see them not as a threat but as part of the learning which is critical to sound, ethical leadership. They may represent ‘lost’ aspects of an organisation’s values and culture which a leader might want to restore. In an educational context, they may represent the drift from our core mission of teaching and learning, or a failure in the duty of care to staff or students.

I conclude with this challenge for leaders in the sector: Think about your policy on whistleblowing and whether it is fit for purpose. Reflect on some of the best-known examples of whistleblowing and compare your own organisation to those on which the whistle was blown. And consider how you might create a culture in which people are not afraid to call out unethical and inappropriate behaviour. This is not just a matter of process, important though that is. The first resort for leaders should not always be a referral to their HR department. The best leaders – and there are many in our own sector – are not allergic to bad news. They do not bury it but, instead, treat crisis as a catalyst for constructive, creative change. That is what ethical leadership is all about.

Dame Ruth Silver is President of FETL

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