Whistleblowing returned to media prominence on 11 May with the news that Barclays chief executive Jes Staley had been fined £642,000 for attempting to unmask a whistleblower at his organisation.

Staley had found himself under investigation by the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) following his reaction to an anonymous letter that levelled allegations of misconduct against a senior Barclays figure, who was also a friend to Staley. Rather than act on the contents of the letter, Staley launched an internal probe to identify the sender.

Announcing the fine, FCA executive director Mark Steward said: “Mr Staley breached the standard of care required and expected of a chief executive in a way that risked undermining confidence in Barclays’ whistleblowing procedures. Chief executives must act with a high degree of care and prudence at all times.”

On the very same day Staley was fined, The Big Issue published an article on recent, high-profile corporate exposés under a headline hailing whistleblowers as “the new rock stars”. And last month, the European Commission unveiled proposals to strengthen the EU’s protections for whistleblowers, with first vice-president Frans Timmermans saying: “Many recent scandals may never have come to light if insiders hadn’t had the courage to speak out. But those who did took enormous risks.

“We can better detect and prevent harm to the public interest such as fraud, corruption and corporate tax avoidance, or damage to people’s health and the environment. There should be no punishment for doing the right thing.”

Mindful of Staley’s misjudgement – and Timmermans’ portrayal of whistleblowers as canaries in the coalmine of corporate conduct – what should a morally responsible treatment of these individuals look like?

The Institute of Leadership & Management's head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper says: “As the fine indicates, it’s undoubtedly the case that what Jes Staley did was wrong, in terms of investigating the whistleblower rather than the activities that the individual flagged up. However, whistleblowing is often more complex than it seems. Just as firms must guard against corruption, they must also guard against the malicious misuse of whistleblowing as a means of leveraging improper advantage. Plus, firms must bear in mind that whistleblowing is hugely resource intensive to pursue, whether or not the allegations have any bedrock.”

That said, Cooper notes, it is important for firms to have a clear, transparent policy. “As well as stating that allegations will be investigated, it must provide staff with clear instructions on what they must do if they decide to blow the whistle. If a whistleblower emerges, then it’s important for the firm to have someone on hand like a coach, who can be appointed to look after the individual in question and take down an oral account of their concerns.

“Narrative reporting is often so much richer than the results that would typically stem from filling in a form, or some other written presentation of such allegations, which could encourage self-censorship on the whistleblower’s part.”

Following that phase, Cooper stresses, it is imperative for an investigation to actually take place, rather than the organisation kicking it down the road or into the long grass. “Just as importantly,” she says, “when the investigation gets up and running it must move with a purpose and a sense of momentum, rather than dragging on for an unnecessarily long time: a protracted investigation would not only be potentially harmful to the firm’s reputation, but painful for the whisleblower, too. And all the way through this process, the whistleblower’s anonymity must be protected.”

She adds: “Once the investigation has concluded, there should be a follow-up – in other words, if misconduct is proven, then measures to prevent such activity from recurring must be devised and implemented. It would also be a positive step for the organisation to circle back to the whistleblower at the end and conduct a debrief of the entire process: what went well, what didn’t go so well, and what kind of lessons can be drawn from how it unfolded.”

For further thoughts on ethics in the workplace, check out these resources from the Institute