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The Moral Dilemma of the Would-be Whistleblower

April 1, 2016 by Dr. Jon Warner in Risk Management

The Moral Dilemma of the Would-be Whistleblower

We are all well aware that organizational corruption, theft and fraud are not only a problem for the organization itself and the industry of which it is a part but a major drain on the overall economy as a whole. Shareowners receive lower returns as untaxed monies are siphoned away by unethical individuals, customers face higher prices to compensate for the losses and even employees may suffer by way of greater monitoring of their day-to-day activities, not to mention some of them being disciplined – fairly or unfairly. 

When any wrong-doing occurs (from what might be seen as so-called “lesser” infringements such as regularly padding expenses or perhaps stealing minor workplace assets to more significant offences such as fraud or embezzlement) it is clearly important for a business to rapidly identify the rogue individuals and quickly seek to put an end to the activity. So-called “whistle-blowing” or having employees report on any breaches they perceive to be occurring is a great way to identify these problems at an early stage. However, this does not mean that this approach is always welcomed. In other words, some organizations will be more welcoming of whistleblowing than others (in both management and employee ranks) and it’s worth therefore looking at why the perspective on this may be so different. 

Although whistleblowers help to quickly lessen “leakage” from the organization, strengthen employee confidence in their management, and raise the morale of honest employees, who generally like to think that they are working for an ethical organization, individuals who engage in this activity are often regarded with great suspicion. This may manifest itself as disdain, ostracization, or, in some cases, in verbal or even physical reprisals. This is clearly not a very attractive prospect for any person who is thinking about telling his or her boss that a problem may need attention! This even extends to what might be widely seen to be completely unacceptable behavior, such as workplace bullying or sexual harassment, for example, where once again, the person reporting it may well be seen as an unwanted “snitch” and left “out in the cold” by workmates even when they agree with their opinion.

Perhaps even worse than ostracization, in the US and many other legal systems around the world, when a whistleblower is treated badly, by management or fellow employees, the law does little or nothing to help them from these reprisals and may not even protect them if they get fired. For example, the US Whistleblower Protection Act of 1989 seeks to broadly protect whistleblowers from management reprisals. However, this law only provides protections (and some would say at a fairly shallow level) to whistleblowers working within the federal government and exempts from its protections all employees who work in the private sector. This is not to say that there are no enforcement of laws against corporate crimes and misdemeanors but many experts argue that they provide very little protection for the whistleblower and the outcomes (being terminated for their candor or having to leave because the workplace becomes too hostile) are often all too common. 

As a result of the very substantial barriers to whistle blowing, many employees “turn a blind eye to” or at least keep quiet about activities they know to be problematic or clearly illegal. Furthermore, they may even “put up with” an activity they disagree with or feel to be personally unethical just to protect their job or so as not to “rock the boat” for their work team. 

Summary

Whistleblowing is often seen to be acceptable in theory or in principle but highly problematic and even unwanted in practice. Fraud, corruption and other workplace misdemeanors are phenomena that no organization will ever completely eliminate, but companies clearly need do a lot more to say what they would like to see happen and then back that up in their actions. In practical terms this means that it should be commonplace in companies to encourage those who know of serious workplace problems to come forward with their information and be taken both seriously and dealt with in a fair and respectful manner. This entails that would-be whistleblowers must be reassured that coming forward with information that is detrimental to their bosses and fellow workmates will be dealt with confidentially and will not under any circumstances be detrimental to the person reporting the issue. After all, such people are more often than not the courageous messengers that should be praised for keeping the organization ethically on-track.

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About Dr. Jon Warner

Dr. Jon Warner is a prolific author, management consultant and executive coach with over 25 years experience. He has an MBA and a PhD in Organizational Psychology. Jon can be reached at OptimalJon@gmail.com

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About the Editor and Primary Author

Jon Warner

Jon Warner is an executive coach and management consultant and in the past has been a CEO in three very different companies. Read more

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