'Paid to read the paper' | £105k worker says firm slashed his duties after whistleblowing incident

£105k worker says firm slashed his duties after whistleblowing incident

A worker alleges he is paid more than £100k a year to do barely any work, after bosses stripped him of responsibilities when he became a whistleblower several years ago.

The Daily Mail has reported on the case of Dermot Mills, a finance manager at Irish Rail, who says his duties were dramatically reduced after making a protected disclosure in 2014.

As a result, Mills, who earns around £105,000 (121,000 Euros), now reportedly spends most of his time at work reading newspapers, taking long walks and eating sandwiches.

Mills alleges that he was punished for whistleblowing after raising concerns about an accounting issue in 2014 and that, subsequently, he would be “thrilled” if he got something that requires me to do work once in a week”.

Irish Rail has admitted that Mills made a protected disclosure but argues that it did not penalise him for doing so.

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However, Mills told a Workplace Relations Commission (WRC) hearing that he would be “thrilled” if he got something that requires me to do work once in a week”.

Mills told the WRC: “I either work from home or go into the office - two days at home, three days in the office.

“If I go to the office, I go in for 10am. I buy two newspapers, The Times and The Independent, and a sandwich.

“I go into my cubicle, I turn on my computer, I look at emails. There are no emails associated with work, no messages, no communications, no colleague communications.

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“I sit and I read the newspaper and I eat my sandwich. Then about 10.30am, if there's an email which requires an answer, I answer it. If there's work associated with it, I do that work.”

He added he spends “an hour or two” walking around in the afternoon.

When asked to confirm he gets paid the equivalent of 105,000 to "do nothing," he replied: “...when I say to do nothing, I mean to not use my skills”.

Mills's representative, former Irish Rail HR chief and industrial relations consultant John Keenan, told the Workplace Relations Commission (WRC), claimed this heavily reduced workload was the result of still being penalised for whistleblowing.

Mills has reportedly written to Irish Rail chief executive in March 2014, before making a protected disclosure to the Transport Minister in December that year, regarding some accounting concerns.

But after raising these concerns, Mills alleges his responsibility for certain tasks was taken away.

“I started off with what seemed like a reasonable remit in 2013 and 2014. Slowly but surely it was hacked down to nothing,” he said.

He also alleged he was blocked from training opportunities and company meetings since blowing the whistle.

The case is proceeding but a follow-up hearing is not expected until early 2023.

Should workers be worried about the repercussions of speaking up?

Mills' case is, understandably, amusing at first glance. Who in their right mind would turn down £105,000 to read the newspaper all day, right?

But scratch just a little beneath the surface, and there are big issues for HR to consider around the repercussions employees might face if they blow the whistle on workplace issues.

And although the legal case is taking place in Ireland, there are still key learnings for HR leaders in the UK, specifically when it comes to the laws around employee whistleblowing, and why this should be taken seriously by leaders within the people function.

Protection for UK whistle blowers like Reilly is provided under the Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998 (PIDA, part of the Employment Rights Act 1996. The legislation protects employees and workers who blow the whistle about wrongdoing.

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As per Reuters news agency’s Practical Law page, employees who make "protected disclosures" under the Disclosure Act can claim unfair dismissal if their contracts are terminated as a result of their whistleblowing.

They are also protected from other potential punishments such as a refusal to offer promotion, facilities or training opportunities.

However, only certain kinds of disclosure qualify for protection under the PIDA. These are known as "qualifying disclosures" and must relate to one of the following:

  • A criminal offence

  • A breach of a legal obligation

  • A miscarriage of justice

  • A danger to any individual's health or safety

  • Damage to the environment

  • Deliberate covering up of information relating to any of the above.

Elizabeth Gardiner is the CEO of UK whistleblowing charity Protect. Regarding whistleblowing laws, Gardiner said: “It is unlawful for an employer to dismiss an employee or subject them to a detriment (any disadvantage) because they have blown the whistle.

“However, only workers are protected (not everyone in the workplace for example non-executive directors, self-employed contractors etc.) and to qualify for protection, they need to reasonably believe that their concern falls within the six categories of wrongdoing set out in the law (crime, breach of a legal obligation, health and safety, damage to the environment, miscarriage of justice or cover up of any of the above) and is in the public interest. A whistleblower can be protected if they raise the concern internally to their employer, but also externally to a regulator or even to the press (but different legal tests apply to each stage).

“In Protect's view, it is vital that workers have a remedy (damages via the employment tribunal) if the employer treats them badly because they've tried to raise a concern. However, the current law is only retrospective and we think that there should also be stronger positive requirements on employers to put effective whistleblowing arrangements in place, and a positive duty to prevent victimisation of whistleblowers.”

Why employers should care about ensuring their employees can blow the whistle safely

“Whistleblowers are the eyes and ears of an organisation, and the best form of risk management,” said Gardiner.

“They can spot small harms or risks and prevent disasters, saving lives and livelihoods, reputations and finances. Creating a space where employees feel safe to blow the whistle is good for business - it means that employers can detect risks early, deter wrongdoing, and provide a positive workplace culture which will help attract and retain talent.”

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How employers can best deal with whistleblowers in their organisations:

“It is vital that employers train everyone on how to speak up, and also train managers in how to respond to a whistleblowing concern. Whistleblowers are often conveying difficult information about wrongdoing and managers need to be trained to be good recipients of bad news. They need to be able to identify whistleblowing concerns and recognise that they are not the same as grievances, thank and reassure whistleblowers and protect their confidentiality throughout any investigation of that concern. Managers also need to know when and how to escalate concerns raised with them.”

What employers could put in place to increase protections for whistleblowers in the workplace

Gardiner concludes: “Training (as above) is vital, but the best employers go further and introduce risk assessments to ensure whistleblowers are protected when they come forward.

“But creating the right culture is everyone's business. Chief executives and senior leaders need to set the tone - they should encourage speaking up at work, and explain that they will implement serious sanctions for treating whistleblowers badly. The general public now see whistleblowers in a positive light but too many employers still see whistleblowers as a problem, not as the valuable early warning system that every good business needs.”

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