What Is and What Isn’t a Whistleblower Incident? – How to Tell the Difference

Whistleblowing is when someone raises the alarm about potential or ongoing fraud, corruption, waste, abuse, or an illicit activity that risks public health and safety. 

However, not every serious workplace incident meets the threshold for whistleblowing. Certain criteria must be met to make an incident worthy of whistleblowing. 

Here, we explain what is and what isn’t a whistleblower incident and highlight the different types of whistleblowing. 

What is a whistleblowing incident?

The conditions of whistleblowing are as follows: 

  • The incident must have a public interest element (as in, it has wider implications than simply affecting you as an individual). This could be an allegation of fraud, corruption, professional misconduct, malpractice, or unethical behaviour that may have a financial impact on the general public (e.g., misuse of public funds) or put lives at risk (e.g., improper building practices). 
  • A whistleblowing report should be made to someone in a position to act and rectify the wrongdoing exposed. As we’ll discover below, reports can be made within an organisation to a designated person or department, or to an external body, such as a law enforcement agency. 

Which incidents does the EU Whistleblowing Directive cover?

The EU Whistleblowing Directive was introduced to protect whistleblowers across the European Union. By allowing employees to raise concerns anonymously about perceived misconduct, they can confidently blow the whistle on corruption without fear of retaliation. 

The Directive applies to municipalities with more than 10,000 residents, all public or private sector organisations with more than 50 employees, organisations working in finance regardless of size, and organisations subject to Anti-Money Laundering (AML) and Combating Terror Finance (CTF) legislation, such as law firms, accountants, notaries, and casinos.

Whistleblowers are given protection by the Directive when they report wrongdoing in the following areas: 

  • animal health and welfare
  • anti-money laundering and financial services
  • consumer protection
  • environmental protection
  • food safety
  • nuclear safety
  • privacy and personal data
  • product safety
  • public health
  • public procurement
  • terrorist financing
  • transport safety

The Directive also applies to breaches of union competition rules, potential harm to the EU’s financial interests, and arrangements that lead to tax advantages and contravene existing corporate tax laws.

When should the whistle be blown on this type of activity?

Whistleblowers can act at any time. They can make a report about an ongoing event, something that happened in the past, or something they believe will happen in the future.  

The only provision is that they’ve acted in good faith and have reason to believe the information they’re reporting is accurate. 

What are the different types of whistleblowing?

When someone is ready to blow the whistle on perceived wrongdoing, they generally have three options. They can take their concerns to someone within the organisation, flag the issue to an external organisation, such as a regulatory body, or announce the information publicly via social media or the written press. 

Let’s look at each of these in a little more detail. 

1. Internal whistleblowing 

This is typically the first port of call for many whistleblowers. If they have concerns about wrongdoing in the workplace, they’ll seek to raise them with someone inside the organisation, such as management, HR, or the board of directors.

As per the EU Whistleblowing Directive, all public or private sector organisations with more than 50 employees must have a dedicated internal whistleblowing channel and a designated individual or department to handle whistleblowing reports. Concerns can be submitted in writing, via text form, orally, in an in-person meeting, or by voice messaging system. 

2. External whistleblowing 

External whistleblowing refers to reports made to law enforcement agencies, judicial authorities, ombudspersons, and authorities that provide administrative oversight, such as anticorruption or regulatory bodies. 

Whistleblowers may turn to an external channel if they’ve tried to report their concerns internally but haven’t received a response (or nothing has changed). They may also look to an external body if they fear retaliation from their employer. 

3. Public whistleblowing 

Public whistleblowing refers to reports made to the media or shared on social media. If whistleblowers choose to use a public channel, they must first have made attempts to report the incident through internal and external channels to qualify for protection. 

A whistleblower may choose to go public with their concerns if there’s an imminent threat to life or potentially dangerous health and safety or environmental consequences of not acting quickly. 

They may also publicly disclose information if they’ve exhausted both internal and external channels and nothing has changed, as in the case of nurse Terry Bryan.

Shining a prime time light on care home abuse.Terry Bryan was working at a private hospital in the UK when he witnessed the appalling abuse of residents with learning difficulties. At first, he raised concerns internally with management. When he was ignored, he took his observations to the external Care Quality Commission (England’s independent regulator of health and social care).
Sadly, the CQC failed to act, so Bryan turned to the BBC. They broadcast the show Undercover Care: The Abuse Exposed, which led to the imprisonment of several care workers. 
You can read more about Terry and other inspiring whistleblowers who went public here: 7 Famous Whistleblowers Who Took a Stand and Inspired Change

What does not count as whistleblowing? 

As a rule of thumb, the threshold for whistleblowing is that an incident must be of wider public interest, such as illegal activity or a regulatory breach — especially if the activity puts health & safety or the environment at risk. 

This means a personal grievance (something that affects only you as an individual), such as workplace bullying, contract violations, or sexual harassment, may not be considered a whistleblowing matter.

How should you respond when something isn’t a whistleblowing incident?

Your company’s internal whistleblowing channel shouldn’t be used for individual workplace complaints. If you have an issue with your manager, a colleague, your workload, or something else that impacts only you, you should raise it with your line manager or HR department. Your company or organisation may have a grievance procedure that you need to follow. 

If, after doing so, you feel like your concerns aren’t being addressed, you could seek advice from a third party. For example, in the UK, Acas offers free, impartial advice on workplace rights, rules, best practices, and a dispute resolution service. Similar resources are available in Sweden, Germany, and across the EU.  

That said, sometimes, personal grievances are symptoms of wider issues, and there may come a time when you could raise your concerns by blowing the whistle. For example, let’s consider workplace sexual harassment. 

Is sexual harassment a whistleblowing incident?

According to the whistleblowing charity Protect, if you’re the only person being sexually harassed in your workplace, it’s outside the scope of whistleblowing. Instead, you should assert your rights through employment and equality law in a grievance process.  

However, if you reasonably believe you’re not the only person impacted by or at risk of harassment, the issue could stray into whistleblowing territory. 

That’s because there may be public interest in your organisation if:

  • There are several other people who’ve been or are being sexually harassed
  • There’s a culture or environment where sexual harassment is permitted or overlooked in the workplace
  • The harassment is criminal 
  • The harasser is a senior or influential person in the organisation

If you witness widespread harassment, bullying, or contract violations in your organisation, you may be able to whistleblow to a law enforcement agency or industry regulator. Some regulators have broadened their remits to include concerns about workplace culture and will take these complaints seriously.

In summary

To recap, if reporting an incident of fraud, corruption, professional misconduct, or malpractice can be considered in the public’s best interest, then it meets the threshold for whistleblowing.

Additionally, if you are not the only person being affected (in the case of systemic sexual harassment, for example), you may be able to whistleblow to a law enforcement agency or industry regulator.

Having an up-to-date and accurate whistleblowing policy can help clarify your organisation’s expectations about these types of wrongdoing, how they should be reported, and how would-be whistleblowers will be protected. 

Auto-generate your whistleblowing policy with NorthWhistleSave time and legal costs with our professional whistleblowing app. With just a few clicks, you can generate a personalised whistleblowing policy that fits the requirements of your EU country. Clarify what is and isn’t a whistleblowing incident for your staff, suppliers, contractors, and stakeholders and explain how they should report it. 
Learn more about NorthWhistle here, or book your free demo today.