Two Ways to Improve Whistle-Blower practices

Whistle Blowers, and the will to speak…

In a piece for the Huffington Post, Carol Morgan writes,

Let’s face it – it seems like we live in an age where we all see a lot of borderline criminal behavior in our work places. As for me, even though I haven’t witnessed overtly criminal behavior, I have definitely seen a lot of blatant pathological lying that wreaked havoc on everyone in the line of fire. In fact, we had one person who made our work lives miserable, but many of us were afraid to report the person. I guess we were afraid to be the “whistle-blower.”

Whistle blowing is an important matter within the discussion of Ethics, because many times, regardless of our level in the company hierarchy, we find ourselves needing to make a decision about whether to report a violation. This invariably involves an assessment of risk to ourselves or our livelihood, along with measuring the issue against our own moral compass.  Additionally, how an organization and its leaders handle reports of violations will reveal much about the entity’s values and ethical standards.

Formal Policy

A whistle-blower (WB) policy is nearly always in place (if not, it should be—Sarbanes Oxley requires it), and it serves to demonstrate that the company strives to be transparent. However, such policies don’t necessarily guarantee that issues will be brought to the light of day if there is real fear that there will be reprisals (even though a valid WB policy includes a non-recrimination clause). In some business cultures there may be a “talk the talk” about transparency but management demonstrates—through visible action and messaging—a preference for  maintaining a status quo, even if that means brushing ugly truths under the rug. In such environments, it is not surprising if employees are reticent to speak up. In fact, according to the study Morgan conducted, whistle blowers frequently do lose their jobs or endure other forms of retaliation (in spite of policy).

In asking why whistle blowers decide to act, Morgan saw “that most convey that they simply reach a breaking point”. Many try to enact change through other means or influence the situation with their own ethical viewpoints, but become frustrated when they see situations repeated.

Two Suggestions for Raising the Bar

In the nonprofit sector where social justice is at the heart of so much of the work, high ethical standards seem quite essential. How can organizations create a safe place for reporting concerns and misdeeds? In other words, how can leaders and managers walk the talk of their written policies?

1. Creating Safety:

The whistle-blower policy should be dusted off once a year or so, and included as an agenda item a your annual board retreat. The questions can be asked ahead of time in a staff survey:

  • “in what ways do we discourage honest truth telling?”
  • “in what ways do  we encourage truth telling?”
  • “In what ways do we make our employees feel safe?”

Remember that these questions are important for all staff, even those who haven’t yet established their own credibility or who might not so popular. Someone new to the team, with fresh eyes might be most likely to notice a violation or red flag. Understanding the ways that policies may not be applied or interpreted consistently are helpful. Annual surveys can be implemented to gather staff feedback on these and related questions. Discussions and specifics at board level need to be included in the minutes. Overcoming shortcomings in safety and “truth-friendliness” should become part of leadership performance plans and organizational priorities.

Incidentally, there are many indirect benefits to building an atmosphere of trust and safety. Overall effectiveness is likely to incrase as communication becomes more open.

2. Take Action in the most positive manner possible:

The Effective Organization should strive to respond in positive ways to any feedback, no matter how chilling and negative it may be. Courage of leadership is certainly required, along with living the established value of the Learning Organization. An admission of fault can sometimes be the most positive action.

Not all negative reporting will lead to punishment or negative publicity, sometimes it is merely a moment to improve and learn. Of course there are serious infractions that may demand tough or dramatic action, but sometimes it can be a simple matter of “ok, starting now, we will handle it this way.” Seeing positive results gives the staff more confidence that their information will be handled appropriately.

Again, there is an indirect benefit: seeing Executive action resulting from a report will build critical trust in leadership which sustains the organization in countless ways.

So, I’m suggesting that creating a culture of safety along with an attitude of action are two good places to start. What do you think?


Works cited:
Morgan, C. (2016, June 10). Unethical Behavior: Sit Back or Fight Back? Huffington Post .

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