Who’s to Blame for Blame Culture…?

I remember a former CEO doing a Q&A session at an all-staff meeting. After various questions about the direction the organisation was going, someone asked about blame culture – the response was robust: “I won’t tolerate blame culture – if it happens, the individuals responsible will be identified and held accountable”. In spite of the guffaws around the room, the said CEO clearly couldn’t see the irony inherent in this statement. Yet blame culture remains part and parcel of many businesses across the UK.

This is a shame as it inhibits people from raising issues that need to be raised if an organisation is to continue improving its performance.  After all, how do you know where you’re going wrong if people are scared to point out where you are?  At it’s worst, the fear of being blamed even prevents people from coming clean about their mistakes, and how many employers wouldn’t rather learn from mistakes than not know about them? Even worse, the worry that they’ll be blamed may persuade some people that it’s better to say nothing, even if they know something illegal has happened.   The irony of this latter point is that the law is on their side – in theory.

The Public Interest Disclosures Act 1998 provides protection for anyone who makes a disclosure so they shouldn’t be sacked, or disadvantaged for having done so.  The Act covers disclosure of criminal offences, breaches of legal obligations, miscarriages of justice, danger to individual health and safety, damaging the environment or attempting to conceal any of these things.  If someone DOES suffer as a result of having blown the whistle, they have the right to make a claim to the Employment Tribunal and, if upheld, a dismissal would be automatically unfair.  Since 2013, the ET has the power to reduce the settlement if they think the initial disclosure was done in “bad faith”.

A critical point is that people need to follow the specified procedure, and are only protected if they state that they are making a disclosure under the Act.  The trouble is that many employers don’t have the mechanisms, or resources, to make sure that suitable protection is put in place before, during and after an investigation – or they don’t make it easy for their staff to find the right procedure to follow.  And if people use the wrong procedure to make their disclosure, or don’t specifically invoke that protection, it’s very possible that the law will leave them high and dry. That leaves people feeling too exposed, so it becomes easier to sit tight and say nothing, or leave (and still say nothing). There is also the problem that the legal protection of the Act only kicks in once someone can demonstrate that they’ve suffered a detriment (e.g. been sacked), by which point there is often no way back.

So, if the UK seriously wants to instigate a culture under which people report issues they see at work, perhaps we need to start by ensuring that people can be open about honest mistakes.  Thereafter, have the confidence to develop genuinely open and clear procedures so people can believe that they ARE protected – not just by the law – and encourage people to report things without fear and we might make some headway. Similar to the progress many organisations are making towards developing a safety culture, where staff routinely remind each other of safe processes, eventually perhaps we’ll learn to accept intervention as a helping hand rather than a criticism.