What is 'whistleblowing'?

Whistleblowing is a colloquial term for disclosing wrongdoing in your organisation. The law protects workers from being retaliated against by their employer if they make a 'protected' disclosure. 

The Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998 sets out the circumstances in which a disclosure of specific categories of wrongdoing or malpractice will be protected. The worker must have a reasonable belief that the wrongdoing has taken place in the past, is continuing or is likely to happen in the future. 

The disclosure must be in the public interest. Whistleblowing laws are designed to protect workers who speak up when they witness wrongdoing within the specified categories - for example, fraudulent invoicing at work. It is not intended for workers with an individual grievance concerning their own contract or working conditions, where the right pathway for raising a complaint is usually via the employer’s grievance procedure. However, there is sometimes an overlap. For example, a worker’s concerns over being required to work in an unsafe environment clearly affect not only themselves but also their fellow workers, and sometimes also the wider public. A disclosure to their employer about these concerns is likely to be a protected disclosure in the public interest, protected by the Public Interest Disclosure Act.    

Any compensation for suffering detriment or dismissal as a result of making the disclosure can be cut by up to 25% if it was made in bad faith. 

In general terms, the Act protects disclosures in the public interest of information tending to show: 

  • criminal offences; 

  • non-compliance with the law; 

  • miscarriage of justice; 

  • danger to health and safety; and 

  • environmental damage. 

Normally a disclosure should first be made internally, to the employer. The Act is designed to encourage internal whistleblowing. If your employer has a whistleblowing policy or confidential reporting policy, you should use this to report your concerns. 

Whistleblowing laws are extremely complicated. These laws are widely recognised by unions and campaigners as being 'unfit for purpose', especially because of their complexity. Before deciding whether or how to report a concern about malpractice, you should contact the expert whistleblowing charity Protect (it used to be called Public Concern at Work) for free confidential advice. 

Workers who knowingly make false allegations will not be protected by the Act, and are likely to face disciplinary action from their employer. 

If you believe you have suffered a detriment as a result of making a protected disclosure (e.g. you have been disciplined, or are being bullied or ostracised by your colleagues), you can complain to an employment tribunal. Seek the help of your union if you are a member. 

Acas early conciliation applies to all tribunal claims, including claims based on whistleblowing. You can find more information about bringing a tribunal claim, including Acas early conciliation in our Enforcing your Rights section. 

Note: This content is provided as general background information and should not be taken as legal advice or financial advice for your particular situation. Make sure to get individual advice on your case from your union, a source on our free help page or an independent financial advisor before taking any action.

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