William Mark Felt, Sr. (1913-2008), A.K.A. ‘Deep Throat’. Felt, a former associated director of the FBI supplied Washington Post reporters Woodward and Bernstein with enough insider information to take down President Nixon after the Watergate scandal. (Source: CBS News)
Ideas for Leaders #193

Blowing the Whistle on Unethical Conduct: It Takes a Village

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Key Concept

Employees who want to report wrongdoing must overcome two fears: the fear of retaliation and the fear of futility (the fear of risking the enmity of boss and co-workers for nothing, because nothing is done). New research on whistleblowers confirms that the boss sets the initial ethical tone for the organization or unit, but also demonstrates that co-workers play an important role in either supporting or discouraging whistleblowing. The research shows that the interaction of the two factors — boss attitude and co-workers attitude — impacts an employee’s fear of retaliation. If either the boss or co-workers are unethical, fear of retaliation will prevent an employee from reporting wrongdoing. For that reason, “it takes a village” — in other words, it takes the support of all those around them — to encourage employees to do the right thing. 

Idea Summary

Blowing the whistle on internal wrongdoing can be a risky endeavour. What if nothing happens and you’re now branded a fink? What if there’s retaliation from your boss or even your peers?

A team of researchers decided to empirically test the influence of the social environment — including both management and peers — on whistleblowing in the workplace. The team, consisting of professors David Mayer and Samir Nurmohamed of the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, Linda Klebe Treviño of Pennsylvania State University’s Smeal College of Business, Debra L. Shapiro of University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business and Marshall Schminke of the University of Central Florida’s College of Business Administration, set up three separate studies to answer their questions.

The first study consisted of an in-depth survey given to approximately 200 newly hired employees in a large corporation about what they would do when they encountered wrongdoing under different circumstances (e.g. support or non-support from the boss, etc.).

While the first study involved how employees intended to act, the researchers’ second study measured actual behaviour. In the survey — sent to 34,000 employees in 16 companies — respondents were asked if they had witnessed unethical behaviour and, if so, whether they had reported such behaviour.

The third study involved a lab experiment where participants were led to believe that they were witnessing unethical behaviour by their team leaders and in some cases co-workers.

The results of all three studies were consistent. While company management played an important role in setting the ethical tone of the organization, the impact of managerial leadership was compounded when coupled with similar attitudes in the crew. For example, the researchers found that 40 percent of respondents reported unethical behaviour if either supervisors or co-workers rated low on ethical behaviour. However, when both rated as high on ethics, 65 percent reported the wrongdoing.

Fear of retaliation was a major reason lack of support from either the boss or one’s co-workers stifles whistleblowing. Fear of futility was not as dependent on support from everyone; most people, the researchers concluded, know that it’s ultimately up to the boss whether or not to follow through.

Business Application

Progressive organizations want to create a social environment that encourages reporting of wrongdoing. The research has important implications on how to develop such an environment.

  1. The message about non-tolerance of unethical behaviour must come from multiple sources. Top-down messaging is not good enough. Employees must believe that their co-workers are as committed to ethical behaviour as their leaders.
  2. One-size-fits-all ethics training (“At X company, we do not tolerate unethical behaviour”) must be replaced with training that is different for different groups.  Leaders must be specifically taught how to be an ethics “leader,” motivating their teams to be ethical units. Employees must be taught how to support each other’s ethical behaviour.

Ethical behaviour is often seen as an individual issue: individuals decide whether or not to act ethically, and individuals decide whether or not to report unethical behaviour. As this research demonstrates, ethical behaviour is much more a community activity. Business leaders must adopt the “it-takes-a-village” mentality — everyone must be involved — when approaching this vital issue in their organizations.

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