Whistleblowing is not about being a sneak, but about good risk management, Public Concern at Work (PCaW) director Guy Dehn told top UK companies at the AIG Corporate Governance Seminar recently.
Whistleblowing systems give early warning of issues that could pose a serious risk to a company's existence, he said.
The importance of responsible whistleblowing was enshrined in the Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998. It said legitimate whistleblowers were protected against dismissal, with no maximum award for people who lost their job in breach of the act.
The act also warned that over-strict confidentiality clauses in employment contracts could have the opposite effect to that intended, pushing an employee to blow the whistle outside the company, to either a statutory body, the police or the media.
Dehn said PCaW existed to advise employees on when and how to blow the whistle, and employers on how to ensure their company had a successful whistleblowing policy.
He said disasters such as the Zeebrugge ferry tragedy, the fall of Barings bank, Maxwell's pension fund fraud and the BCCI fraud disclosures all involved unsuccessful whistleblowing.
In all cases, employees warned of failure or wrongdoing, but were either ignored or did not alert the right person. However, Dehn said this was no longer acceptable.
"If there's a dead body and a corporation nearby, there'll be an investigation," he said.
"If it had notice of a risk, the law and society will expect to know how they dealt with that risk. That's accountability."