Case Study: What's it like to operate a whistleblowers helpline?

Carole Godding of Mencap tells Annette Rawstrone that all charities would benefit from offering this service


Many charities have put in place policies on whistleblowing that encourage their staff to raise concerns, but some have taken this a step further by offering whistleblowing hotlines to employees.

Whistleblowers – people who report suspected wrongdoings at work – are protected from discrimination by their employers by the Public Interest Disclosure Act. Out of the top 10 fundraising charities, Third Sector is aware of five - Mencap, Cancer Research UK, Oxfam, Barnardo's and Age UK – that provide hotlines for staff to report concerns.

Mencap launched its Speak Out Safely hotline in 2012 to encourage an open culture in which staff feel confident about raising concerns at work and to get them to speak out as soon as possible. Carole Godding, head of employee relations at Mencap, believes all charities would benefit from such helplines. "We would encourage anyone in the charity sector, especially those who fundraise, receive public monies or provide services of any kind, to have a whistleblowing line," she says.

Taking external lessons

Godding says the charity did not create the hotline in response to internal allegations of financial abuse at its Dolphin Court care home in Havant, Hampshire, in 2011, but was "taking lessons from the external environment". She says the Stafford Hospital scandal of 2009, in which poor clinical standards were found to have led to high mortality rates, was an incentive for Mencap to revisit its own disclosure policies. "After examining the failings in care at the Mid Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust, we wanted an additional gateway for our workforce to raise concerns," she says. "This is when the work began on the Speak Out Safely line, which we launched in December 2012." The helpline offers support and advice to staff to talk about specific concerns and provides guidance to managers who are responding to them.

Godding declines to disclose how many calls the line receives; she says they aren't frequent, but are a vital part of the charity's governance process. "The aim is to provide another route for staff to raise concerns with confidence that the process will be tracked until matters have been investigated fully and feedback provided to the whistleblower," she says.

The nature of calls varies and no clear pattern has emerged, says Godding; they are, however, always from someone who wants to raise an issue but is concerned about their vulnerability. A large proportion of calls complaining about staff are from people who have lodged a grievance or are involved in disciplinary proceedings.

Godding adds: "Grievances can sometimes be mixed in with whistleblowing concerns, the prompt for the person raising the issues being their dissatisfaction with their employment. The line is ready to deal with more serious types of concern, but we have not had any of that nature since the launch."

'No conflict of interest'

The freephone hotline is run by the charity's HR team, members of which are familiar with the charity's whistleblowing policy and the law – which means the cost to the charity is "minimal", Godding says. She does not believe that this leads to a conflict of interest. "We take steps to ensure that the advisers on the helpline are as impartial and independent as they can be," she says. "We can track each whistleblow and have a trail of activity that we audit periodically to ensure our response is appropriate and to make sure the work of case managers is open, honest and transparent."

Godding advises charities that are considering following suit to consider carefully who will answer the calls, ensure that they understand the law and have empathy with the people who are calling. She adds: "The ability to consider whether the matter of concern is a whistleblow or a grievance is imperative so the individual can be guided towards the appropriate process."

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