Whistle-blowing and yes-please-men

Today Sir Robert Francis published his report from the Freedom to Speak Up Review, on whistle-blowing (or the lack of it) in the UK’s National Health Service, amid traditional cries of shock and horror. Anyone who is in the least surprised that drawing attention to shortcomings, failures, and other problems in any large organisation is met by hostility, bullying, and the rest, has clearly never worked there.

Working as a doctor, I very frequently had to listen to harrowing accounts given by my patients of the bullying that they suffered, and was often told that the medical restrictions placed on them by myself and their GP were at best blithely ignored, and at worst deliberately flaunted. On several occasions I tried to blow the whistle, once formally going through the Public Interest Disclosure Act (PIDA) process. Despite very obvious issues such as potential racial discrimination, never once was any case effectively investigated. I even tried alternative approaches, bringing in a very senior professional colleague, only to hear him say that there seemed little point in trying to do anything about manifestly wrong and injurious decisions made by others in the past.

Unfortunately these problems are a symptom of a deep sickness in the management of most larger organisations, whether public or private. We have lost those managers (particularly at the most senior levels) who used to care – about patients, clients, customers, or indeed anything beyond their own self-interest. The law may try to enforce that, but so long as everyone up the chain to Board level is not just a ‘yes man’, but now a ‘yes please man’, those changes will be nugatory, and the hard graft and campaigning of groups like Public Concern at Work will remain an uphill struggle.

There is a strong association between organisations which suppress internal criticism, and those which do their best to ignore or stifle complaints and concerns of their customers and clients. I think this was a cultural change which took place during the last recession, in the early 1990s, but could be wrong.

Let’s rid ourselves of the ‘Bully Boys’ for once and for all, and listen to and act on those with concerns.