Hospitality: Is The Welcome As Warm For Whistleblowers?

By Brian Moore, Operations Director at GSA (www.gsaccreditation.com) and Doctoral Candidate in Law at Middlesex University

The UK has one of the most dynamic and diverse hospitality sectors in the world. It comprises more than 140,000 businesses, employing around 1.8 million people, and generates billions of pounds every year. Pandemic aside, the industry has been successfully built around combining a warm welcome with great service. But behind the scenes, that warmth may not be extended to whistleblowers.

A whistleblower is a worker who reveals information about malpractice within their organisation. In the UK, whistleblowing is covered under the Employment Rights Act 1996 which sets out the legal protections offered to employees who take the often difficult decision to ‘blow the whistle’. Importantly, the legislation makes it clear that whistleblowers who raise concerns about criminal offences, breaches of civil law, health and safety breaches, damage to the environment, miscarriages of justice, or ‘cover ups’ of these serious matters must be protected from retaliation – from both their colleagues and the organisation at large.

Sadly, retaliation against whistleblowers is a regular occurrence and arises to prevent the whistleblower from persisting in raising their concerns or to punish them for their disloyalty in having done so. Retaliation can take many forms – from ‘cold shoulder’ treatment, loss of opportunities, industry ‘black-listing’, threats of violence, through to dismissal.

A rising tide
The last 12 months have seen whistleblowing incidents in the UK’s hospitality sector increase by more than 15 percent, according to data from law firm RPC. With incidents on the rise, there is a growing risk to the reputation of the hospitality industry and its ability to retain skilled workers at a time when recruitment is particularly challenging – as well as significant financial risks for businesses engaged in malpractice. Recent high-profile incidents within the industry have seen hotels and catering companies embroiled in damaging media storms too.

That is despite plenty of independent research and case studies highlighting the importance of whistleblowers. One 2020 study in a leading European country involved the participation of 112 hotels and flagged up the importance of securing compliance through formal and informal channels in high-risk environments involving tourists. A 2019 study of more than 1000 food handlers empirically linked values, standards, and whistleblowing mechanisms.

The research suggests that whistleblowers will make three or four attempts to raise their concerns internally and then will either give up, leave the organisation, or raise their concerns externally to a regulator or similar industry body. Many whistleblowers will experience serious stress and even health issues along the way. With that in mind, what basic steps should hotels or serviced accommodation providers take to ensure they deliver best practice?

Pillars of best practice
Firstly, have a clear whistleblowing policy in place for all staff and make it part of the new employee induction process, being sincere in highlighting its importance and helping dispel any negative bias around whistleblowing. Confidentiality is vital but anonymity usually makes it harder to investigate and this should be explained.

Secondly, undertake regular staff training on how to spot breaches and the steps to report them internally. Once a disclosure has been made, hotels should operate a prompt investigative process to explore the validity of the claim and, if needed, remedy the situation immediately. For increased transparency, it may be more suitable for an independent body to manage the investigation, but regardless, it is important that the whistleblower is kept up to date at each stage of the process. This will reinforce the important moral and business value placed on whistleblowing and reassure employees that reports are taken seriously.

And finally, all organisations have a legal requirement to ensure the whistleblower is protected from retaliation of any kind. By ensuring there are confidential procedures and additional support on hand during the whole process, employees who take the brave step to report a breach will be protected and feel valued for their courage.

While these basic steps are important, they are not easy. The goal is to ensure staff have confidence that raising concerns about serious matters is important. Protecting people from retaliation is essential. ‘Integrity washing’ will not cut it – businesses have got to mean it and demonstrate it. Many organisations do well, but these are difficult times, and keeping your guests, staff, and reputation safe is more important than ever. Hotels and accommodation providers unsure of how to implement best practice measures should seek the counsel of trusted, independent organisations such as Global Secure Accreditation. If you are a whistleblower and don’t know where to turn, seek advice in confidence.

When it comes to whistleblowing, the most important thing for businesses across the hospitality industry to remember is: hear the message and act upon it; do not shoot the messenger.