FAQs: Raising a concern with an NHS organisation

How to raise a concern

What do I have to do to raise a whistleblowing concern?

You can raise a concern in writing, face-to-face or by phone with your line manager, a more senior manager or your organisation’s confidential contact. If you work in primary care, as a student or volunteer there may be other people you can speak to such as the NHS board’s confidential contact, student and volunteer co-ordinators. (There is more information about who to speak to about a concern on our website.)

To access the whistleblowing procedure you need to be providing a service for the NHS. This includes people working in primary care, for NHS contractors, or as students and volunteers. People who have recently left employment in an NHS organisation can also raise a concern. There is more information on who can use the process on our website.

You should normally raise a concern within six months of becoming aware of the issue you are raising (this can be extended in some circumstances).

Your concern should also meet the definition of whistleblowing i.e. “speaking up, in the public interest, about an NHS service, where an act or omission has created, or may create, a risk of harm or wrong doing." If you are not sure whether your concern meets this definition, that’s ok. Your line manager or the confidential contact will discuss this with you and help to determine the best way forward.

Our website has more information about how to raise a concern, how it should be handled by the organisation, and the role of the confidential contact.

Is my concern whistleblowing? (Plus signposting for non-whistleblowing issues)

The INWO definition of whistleblowing is “speaking up, in the public interest, about an NHS service, where an act or omission has created, or may create, a risk of harm or wrong doing.”

Not all concerns that are raised are whistleblowing. In fact, people often confuse whistleblowing concerns with issues to do with their employment, known as grievances. A grievance is typically a personal complaint about an individual’s own employment situation.

If you are unsure of which process to use, you should think about the outcome you are looking for. A personal outcome (such as a change to your own working conditions) would normally suggest a grievance, whereas an outcome that would benefit colleagues and/or patients would tend towards whistleblowing (for example changing a department’s procedures to prevent harm to patients).

There is more information about whistleblowing and grievances on our website.

How do I access advice and support?

Under the National Whistleblowing Standards, whoever receives your concern should offer you advice and support. Support could also include referral to counselling, psychological support services or occupational health.

You can also approach your organisation’s confidential contact for advice and support with the whistleblowing process. The confidential contact’s role is to ensure that you have the information you need, a safe space to discuss your concern, and assistance in raising your concern with an appropriate manager.

In addition the INWO team are happy to help anyone involved with a concern and have an advice line available on weekdays.

Professional bodies, union representatives, student representatives (if you are in training), or volunteer co-ordinators can provide advice and support too.

You can also find contact details for support agencies, regulators and professional bodies on our website.

You can also find more information about support that NHS organisations should provide to those raising concern.

Can I bring my concern straight to the INWO?

Normally, you should raise your concern with the organisation first. Raising concerns locally gives the organisation an opportunity to respond directly to your concern. Local handling of concerns also allows the organisation to learn and improve using the expertise of the people who are closest to the work. More importantly, raising a concern locally gives you access to support and protection provided by the organisation, as required under the National Whistleblowing Standards (the section in the Standards on support for the person raising a concern has more useful information).

If you are finding it difficult to raise your concern because you feel vulnerable, or because you are having difficulty accessing or completing the procedure, please contact the INWO team.

What will happen when I raise a concern?

Whoever you raise your concern with should thank you for raising it, listen carefully to what you say, take it seriously and provide reassurance that you have done the right thing.

The process of dealing with a concern will normally involve one or more conversations with you about the concern, the support you need, confidentiality, the outcome you are looking for and any immediate actions that need to be taken. This is to help ensure that the whistleblowing procedure is the right course of action for all the issues you are raising.

You might agree with the person who receives your concern to resolve the issue informally without using the National Whistleblowing Standards (the Standards), through “business as usual” processes (for example by carrying out an audit). However, this isn’t always appropriate and other concerns may need to be formalised and considered using the procedure outlined in the Standards. Even if a business as usual procedure could apply, you can request to have the matter looked at under the Standards.

If your concern is more complex or serious, it is likely that the person you first raise your concern with will need to pass it onto someone else, who will manage the process and identify an appropriate person to investigate the concern. Your identity will be shared with as few people as possible.

You will normally receive a written response to your concern, with details of how to take it further. If an investigation is needed then a response may take longer, but you should be kept informed about likely timescales.

If you have exhausted the two stage process and remain dissatisfied with the outcome, or you are having difficulty raising your concern, you can bring your concern to the INWO. The INWO can review how the organisation has responded to the concern, as well as the concern itself.

The page on how to raise a whistleblowing concern has more information on raising a concern and how it should be handled by the organisation.

Anonymity and confidentiality

Can I be anonymous?

People who speak up may have concerns about their identity becoming known to colleagues. Raising a concern anonymously, so that no one knows your identity, is one approach to the problem. However raising a concern anonymously may not achieve the desired outcome because it limits your organisation’s ability to investigate the concern if, for example, there are gaps in the information you have provided. You are not covered by the protections in the National Whistleblowing Standards (the Standards) either and you cannot benefit from the support your organisation is meant to provide to you for speaking up. You will not receive feedback from your organisation if you submit an anonymous concern, and the INWO cannot review your case if you are unhappy with the organisation’s investigation and subsequent actions.

If you raise a concern under the Standards rather than anonymously, the organisation must protect your details and ensure that your confidentiality is maintained throughout and after the process (see next question).

The section of the Standards on anonymity and unnamed concerns provides additional information.

How will my confidentiality be protected?

Confidentiality is a key feature of the two-stage whistleblowing procedure outlined in the National Whistleblowing Standards (the Standards).

Organisations must protect your confidentiality as far as the law allows. In practice this means that your details should not be routinely or automatically shared, either during or after any investigation. Access to any database of concerns must be limited to those who need to access the information and data protection laws apply to how your data is used and recorded.

Whoever receives your concern must discuss confidentiality with you, including who will know about the concern and what data will be shared.

For section of the Standards on confidentiality and data protection provides additional information.

Difficulties in raising concerns

My employer is not taking my concern seriously. What should I do next?

If your line manager is not taking your concern seriously then speak to your organisation’s confidential contact. Every NHS organisation should have someone (in this role) who can give you information and help you to raise a concern with the right manager. If you don’t know who the confidential contact is for your organisation, or they cannot help you, contact the INWO team for advice.

How will the INWO/my organisation protect me from detriment?

The National Whistleblowing Standards (the Standards) are intended to protect and support those who speak up. The INWO expects organisations to ensure that those who speak up are protected, and for disciplinary action to be taken against those who unfairly treat or victimise anybody who raises a concern. You should not be relocated or suspended for speaking up either.   The INWO can investigate how a whistleblower was treated for raising a concern. There is more information in the section of the Standards on your employer’s duty of care.

Please note, there are also legal protections for whistleblowers under the Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998 (PIDA). The section of the Standards on legal protections for those raising concerns provides more information.

What is the distinction between the role of the INWO and the Public Interest Disclosure Act (PIDA)?

The Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998 (PIDA) is often called the ‘whistleblowing law’. It is there to protect all ‘workers’ (as defined in the Employment Rights Act 1996 – this classification is broader than, but includes, all employees), who have made a ‘protected disclosure’ from being treated unfairly as a result of raising a concern.

PIDA provides legal protection for workers who suffer detriment after raising concerns. If a worker is unfairly dismissed or treated unfairly as a result of raising a concern, they can claim compensation under PIDA at an employment tribunal.

The INWO is completely separate to this process. Unlike the employment tribunal, the INWO can review any concern that has been raised through the Standards and represents the third stage of the process for anyone unhappy with the response they have received. The INWO can consider and make recommendations in relation to:

  • how the concern was handled by the organisation;
  • the decisions that were taken in relation to the concerns raised;
  • the treatment of the whistleblower (or anyone connected to the investigation); and
  • whether the organisation supports a culture of speaking up.

Although the INWO can look at how a whistleblower was treated (and could consider recommendations for redress), the INWO cannot award compensation in the way that an employment tribunal can.

I’ve been dismissed/subject to disciplinary action for whistleblowing. What should I do next?

If you have been dismissed for whistleblowing you may be entitled to compensation from an Employment Tribunal. You should contact your union,  professional body, Protect or ACAS as soon as possible to find out what to do next. There are short timescales for bringing a case to a tribunal so it is important that you act quickly. The section of the National Whistleblowing Standards on information and advice provides contact details of other organisations who may be able to help or advise.

If you have been subject to disciplinary action for whistleblowing contact the INWO team as soon as possible for advice.

Updated: October 11, 2022