Update April 23, 2018:
As we noted in recent posts, the European Union has been working on creating uniform regulations to protect whistleblowers. Today, the European Commission proposed a new law, which will guarantee a high level of protection for whistleblowers across the EU. By setting EU-wide standards, whistleblowers will be provided with a special legal status to protect them from potential retaliation. This status will provide access to certain benefits, such as free legal counsel and protection in judicial proceedings. Additionally, companies will be sanctioned if they are found trying to demote, dismiss, or discriminate against whistleblowers.
To record infringements, all companies in the EU with more than 50 employees (or a yearly turnover of over 10 million euros) will be required to implement internal whistleblowing systems. The same will apply to all state administrations, regional administrations, and municipalities with over 10,000 inhabitants.
The proposal grants protection to whistleblowers who report breaches of EU rules in the areas of public procurement, product and transport safety, environmental protection, consumer protection, and financial services (amongst others). Whistleblowers who report inconsistencies relating to Union competition rules or breaches of corporate tax rules are also under protection. For more information, we recommend reviewing the Commission’s Fact Sheet.
This draft law will now undergo revision and then be passed by the European Parliament and the governments of the EU states. Currently, whistleblower protection differentiates throughout Europe.
Learn more about European whistleblower policies in our article from December 2017:
+++ UPDATE March 2019: EU negotiators reached a "provisional agreement" for EU-wide whistleblower protections on 11th March 2019. The EU aims to pass the final whistleblowing protection law by the end of April. Read about the key aspects of the upcoming law. +++
We are always hearing about scandals large and small. Adulterated cancer medicines, the discovery of weapon sales or the Paradise Papers are examples in which whistleblowers have played a central role. When they do this, whistleblowers often give up their own protection.
The question that is becoming more and more at issue here is how to protect conscientious people: “Employees who report abuses walk on thin ice. There are no clear legal rules, so they are unable to estimate the consequences of their actions,” says Prof. Dr. Edda Müller, chairwoman of Transparency International Germany.
Considering the European legal landscape for whistleblowers, something has quickly become obvious: there is no clear uniform law in Europe. Up until now, there have been only a few European countries that have experimented with protecting employees.
No Uniform Legal Framework in Europe
Among the European countries, France is in the lead, having required every company with at least 50 employees to implement a whistleblower system with its “SAPIN II” law.
With “Sapin II”, France is pioneer in European whistleblowing regulations.
Italy is now catching up. A draft law recently adopted the approach of fully protecting employees and their identity when reporting violations. This approach first applied only to public corporations and companies under public control, but has now been expanded to the private sector.
In Poland, the topic of whistleblowing is also more visible than it has ever been. For example, the Polish competition and consumer protection agency UOKiK has begun a pilot project to enable whistleblowers to report unfair competition through a whistleblower hotline. A first step, but which holds great potential for protecting whistleblowers.
In Romania, a whistleblowing law has been in existence since 2004 for public service employees. However, the weakness of this law is in its implementation. Many institutions ignore the protection and declare instances on the spot to be business secrets about which no one should be allowed to speak.
In Ireland, a disclosure law has been in place for a while, called the “Protected Disclosures Act”, for protecting whistleblowers. It provides legal recourse for employees who have been fired or otherwise penalized for reporting an instance in accordance with the law.
The same goes for the United Kingdom. Through its Public Interest Disclosure Act, which has been in effect since 1999, whistleblowers are protected by the state when they make a qualified report and are negatively treated as a result of their disclosure.
Similar regulations have come about last year in Sweden and Norway as well: The new laws provide for a penalty to the employer if they have negatively treated whistleblowers.
A feeling of lack of safety is often a large roadblock for potential whistleblowers.
And in Germany? There is currently no explicit whistleblowing law here. Instead, existing employment law is applied in individual cases; this law is considered to be sufficient protection. However, according to the most recent version of the German Corporate Governance Codex (DCGK), publicly-traded companies are being called upon to implement a secure whistleblower system for all staff members.
European Solution Planned
These examples show that the protection of whistleblowers in Europe is being safeguarded to varying degrees through laws. But a uniform legal framework would significantly simplify the framework conditions for whistleblowers and also strengthen the trust within the European Community. The European Parliament has now taken up this task and is searching for a common solution in a first attempt at it. By the end of 2017, a protection plan is to be put in place. This topic is therefore no passing trend; it is the way of the future.
How can a whistleblowing system look like? Learn about our EQS Integrity Line.