|Remember the story of the
little boy and the Emperor's new clothes? Being a student or recent
graduate can be a bit like that. As a newcomer to an organisation,
you may well be the one who recognises that something is wrong.
Guy Dehn is director of Public Concern at Work, which supports
employees who "blow the whistle" on professional misconduct or
fraudulent and unethical behaviour. He says that as well as being
more likely to recognise something amiss, a new person on a work
placement or temporary contract can feel that he or she has less to
lose than long-standing staff.
He quotes the case of a student working in a large supermarket
chain who realised that the delicatessen manageress was altering the
dates on "sell-by" labels in order to sell out-of-date food. Other
staff members knew it was going on but were keeping quiet. The
student took her concerns to another manager in the store, and
subsequently to Public Concern at Work, and returned to her studies
having stopped a practice that had been endangering public health.
The UK now has strong whistleblower protection - thanks to last
year's Public Interest Disclosure Act. If someone is dismissed for
legitimately informing on their employer, the court can order their
reinstatement or award unlimited compensation. "You are protected
from your first day at work. But it doesn't mean you can leak any
information anywhere. The legislation protects only those people who
do it responsibly," says Mr Dehn. That means going through the
proper channels first. And bona fide whistleblowing under the Act is
where the wrongdoing affects the interests of the public - not where
you personally feel that you have been badly treated, he says.
Mandie Lavin, the director of professional standards at the
Chartered Institute of Management Accountants, points out that in
professions such as nursing and accountancy, people are bound by
codes of conduct or ethical guidelines to express any concerns about
the ethical standards of colleagues.
Students and graduates are often the ones with the most
up-to-date knowledge of a subject. But if you are relatively new to
the workplace it can be difficult to know whether a suspicion is
justified or not. Obviously, you will still have a lot to learn and
what may at first glance look like unethical practice could in fact
not be a problem at all, Ms Lavin says.
Challenging accepted practice can seem a momentous task. For this
reason, Ms Lavin and Mr Dehn advise against trying to go it alone.
Some companies are introducing whistleblowing policies, giving
correct procedures. If not, talk about your concerns with someone
more experienced - your tutor, a colleague, your professional
organisation or trade union. Public Concern at Work has a
"Trade unions and professional organisations have an important
role - they may be the first port of call for people who are
wrestling with their conscience and wondering whether or not they
should take action. They have become a lot more sophisticated in how
they support people through that process," Ms Lavin says.
Your biggest fear is likely to be that falling out with your
employer will jeopardise the rest of your career. Will future
employers see you as a troublemaker? Not necessarily, Mr Dehn
believes. He recommends being open and honest about why you left.
Emma Phillips, 23, had a dispute with her employer - over unpaid
wages rather than whistleblowing - but it has not counted against
her. On leaving university with a law degree in 1998, Ms Phillips
decided to work for a while before doing her bar finals. She was
delighted when she was offered a job as assistant editor on a
newsletter being launched by a small conferencing company.
"I was never given a contract of employment or a proper payslip -
I was being paid by personal cheques from the company's owner," she
says. "It was quite stressful - I felt I was being fobbed off all
When one of the personal cheques bounced, Ms Phillips felt she
had to leave. The company refused to pay her outstanding wages of
almost £700 and the dispute dragged on. She was understandably
anxious about what she would say to future employers. "If you have
left your previous employer on bad terms, interviewers want to know
However, the employment agency she subsequently joined was
supportive, she says. With the help of the Advisory, Conciliation
and Arbitration Service (Acas), she decided to take the company to
an employment tribunal, but the week before the hearing the company
Ms Phillips has since been offered two permanent jobs and is now
an office administrator at Public Concern at Work. "Fortunately I
had some knowledge of employment law. I was prepared to see it
through," she says. "It's important to take a stand."
Public Concern at Work, Suite 306, 16 Baldwins Gardens,
London EC1N 7RJ. Tel: 0207404 6609. http://www.pcaw.demon.co.uk/. Acas, Clifton House,
83-117 Euston Road, London NW1 2RB. Tel: 020 7396 5100
page: Up the Ladder
(Mon - Fri) | Books
News | Business
page | Features
(Mon - Fri) | Go
(Sat) | Interface | Law
(Tue) | Metro
(Sat) | Obituaries
(Sat) | Weekend
(Sat) | Weekend
Money (Sat) | World