Whistleblowers aren’t treated with much respect in the UK, even though they generally have good intentions. Dame Ruth Silver wants this to change

Even for a sector with adaptation in its DNA, these are challenging times. In addition to the day-to-day pressures of accountability, budget cuts and curriculum change, sector leaders have had to deal with the area reviews and the attendant challenges of merging, restructuring or sharing services. Many have had to rethink their offer, reducing some areas of curriculum to ensure the survival of others.

These changes have huge consequences for staff and students. Managers and teachers often find themselves with new responsibilities, sometimes working in different settings with new colleagues, while job losses are painful not only for those made redundant but for those left behind.

When restructuring is handled badly, suspicion, insecurity and distress intensify, and allegations of unfairness can abound. Values-led organisations like colleges operate on trust and when it is eroded, it is bad for staff and students alike, and fertile soil for whistleblowing.

They offer an uncomfortable reminder of how an organisation has drifted from its core purposes or failed to live up to its values

Whistleblowers are in the news, both in the public sector – for example in the case of Mid Staffordshire NHS Trust – and more widely, in the worlds of entertainment and politics.

Steven Spielberg’s new film The Post highlights one historic example, the leak of the Pentagon papers. But while the journalists who break these stories can become heroes, whistleblowers are more usually vilified, their motives questioned and their lives turned upside down.

The stigmatisation of whistleblowers will be explored in the 2018 FETL Lecture by Professor Mark Stein, an expert on whistleblowing whose research is profoundly relevant to the challenges of contemporary leadership.

Prof Stein suggests that this stigma is not only because whistleblowers set up “in opposition” to the organisations they work for but because they represent “the lost good self” of an organisation.

In other words, they offer an uncomfortable reminder of how an organisation has drifted from its core purposes or failed to live up to its values.

Whistleblowers can alert us to problems at an organisation of which we, as leaders, may be unaware. They highlight organisational risks that may have been overlooked. And they represent an important body of opinion that leaders might in many cases prefer not to hear about.

This is why we in further education need to take whistleblowing seriously.

This is a difficult subject; not everyone will be comfortable engaging with it

The reluctance to call out misconduct demonstrates legitimate concerns about consequences and the imbalance of power and scrutiny in many workplaces. It is the job of leaders to address this imbalance.

Values-led organisations need to develop policies that acknowledge the importance of whistleblowing and create an environment in which all staff feel safe, as well as transparent processes which protect employees who identify wrongdoing, rather than seeking to weed them out.

Prof Stein locates the treatment of whistleblowers within the “territory of the self” as opposed to the “territory of the other”.

What this means, from an organisational point of view, is that in turning our back on the whistleblower we are not defending ourselves from outside attack but excluding part of ourselves.

The cost of not taking that risk seriously can be a loss of trust or a failure to engage with the truth of the problems an organisation faces. By taking it seriously, we send a clear message to staff that allegations of wrongdoing will be addressed as well as asserting our values as ethical organisations.

This is a difficult subject; not everyone will be comfortable engaging with it.

That is why it is so important that we, the sector’s leaders, explore new understandings of whistleblowing and its role in the scrutiny and functioning of our institutions. This means moving beyond fear and loathing to develop a positive, ethical approach to an issue which says much about the values of our organisations.

Dame Ruth Silver is President of the Further Education Trust for Leadership

‘Whistleblowing – and the loss of the good self’ is the title of the 2018 FETL Lecture, to be given by Professor Mark Stein on 14 March 2018.