To deal with whistleblowing only on the legislative level, through process, or within the halls of academia is superficial.
We need to investigate what either drives or hinders whistleblowing in the deep structure of the human mind, and to leverage that research for a fuller understanding of current whistleblowing issues.
Behaviour is at the root of all of society’s big problems, with trust being critical to harness lasting change.
With corruption identified at the front and centre of social ills, it’s worth exploring and understanding if social scientists consider whistleblowing a mitigating behaviour to corruption.
There are three main areas to consider:
• Employee Loyalty and Whistleblowing
• Altruistic cheating
• Whistleblowing legislation and 50 Shades of Grey
Most whistleblowers tell stories of shock and betrayal when they discover they have been emphatically condemned as disloyal to their group and organisation, leaving them with misplaced feelings of shame and guilt.
“Keeping one’s promises” and honouring agreements are among the highest values we are taught to observe. But how can individuals in organisations, under certain circumstances, act as if those values are actually absolute, overriding other moral and ethical considerations?
Being a team player shouldn’t mean ‘taking a dive’ on integrity
Due to our evolved sociology, humans behave as herd animals. Our sense of well-being and self-image is largely dependent on our peer group. It is because of this that we may be driven to participate or conceal unethical behaviours we would otherwise abhor.
The threat of expulsion and the irrational expectation of being cast adrift is an ever-present fear.
The practice of keeping an organisation’s secrets gradually blinds us to moral ambiguities. The consequence is that we may become less and less mindful of what is being demanded, as loyalty to the institution becomes stronger than any other, including the interests of outsiders.
History is replete with examples where institutional secrets are kept and, as a result, greatly prejudiced the welfare and safety of others. Examples range from the child sexual abuses in the Catholic Church, to spying on citizens, threats to the environment and even the safety of food products.
One only has to look at the current unravelling of the cheating at VW to see how groups value ‘secrets’ over the societal good. In the case of VW, the consequences, including the significant costs to our health and the ecosystem, are just beginning to be known as the facts present themselves.
The VW bosses have admitted there was a culture of rule-breaking being tolerated within certain areas of the company that led to the misconduct of individual employees and weaknesses in some processes.
If prosecuted by the SFO (Serious Fraud Office) under the 2006 Fraud Act for false representation, VW bosses will be looking at a possible jail sentence of up to ten years.
Furthermore, the long term damage to the environment and health is estimated to have caused at least 32.2 million tons of extra carbon pollution into the atmosphere, equal to roughly 6.8 million cars. In addition to its environmental impact, pollution by nitrogen oxides (or NOx) has been linked to grave health problems, namely asthma and other serious respiratory illnesses.
It is a dramatic model of what happens to society when ‘those in the know’ remain silent.
Whistleblowing in business is often frowned upon because it appears, incorrectly, that individuals are blowing the whistle on their team. Instead, it is important to understand that individuals blow the whistle on a particular practice that is immoral and/or illegal, expecting the practice to be halted.
Because companies have been able to get their employees to view themselves as part of a team, like in sports, it is easier to demand loyalty. Thus, the rules governing teamwork and team loyalty apply.
But businesses are not games. Sports, games and victory in both are socially constructed conventions and are participated in within rules that are enforced by a referee (a literal whistle-blower).
Both business and games have the element of competition, but games take place within a larger social context that is different from competition in business. A team can lose at sport with few consequences. Losing at business has much greater consequences which permeate into society.
Would you condemn a Good Samaritan?
Whistleblowing must be not only permissible, but also expected, when a company is harming society. The issue is not one of disloyalty to the company, but of whether the whistle-blower has an obligation to society, even if blowing the whistle brings them victimisation and retaliation.
Would you condemn a Good Samaritan interfering in the prevention of someone doing harm to themselves or someone else? Probably not. The same applies to whistleblowing.
Now, take into account the consequences of staying silent. Chances are high that sooner or later, the truth will come out and the entire organization will suffer the results.
If individuals aren’t able to speak out or formally blow the whistle on small ethical lapses, these lapses cascade into much larger acts of malfeasance, becoming ‘business as usual’.
The culture becomes embedded with the rationalisations and justifications for not speaking out as opposed to one where courageous conversations are ‘business as usual’.
Often, an employee with the knowledge, evidence and intention of blowing the whistle seeks advice either internally, from within management, or externally.
Intervention at this stage can be enormously helpful, for both company and individual, so long as those in the company’s leadership, who are empowered to act, are prepared to listen and respond.
Altruistic cheating all too often goes hand in hand with employee loyalty
The vulnerability of our irrational inclination to frame and justify cheating is alarming. Ethical decision making research suggests that cheating and dishonesty should be studied at both individual and group level, as group members influence each other through their own ethical and unethical behaviours.
Contrary to what one might expect, unethical decision-makers are judged most unfavourably when attempting to obtain small (5%) gains in profit when compared to those acting to achieve large (50%) gains, or indeed in attempting to prevent a loss of either size.
An individual seeking a small gain is framed as a ‘bad’ person, since gain seeking is worse than loss prevention and there is not that much external pressure to go after a small gain; ie., being unethical is seen as more of a personal choice when the gain is a small benefit rather than a large one, such as the behaviours that drove the VW emission scandal.
Additionally, by focusing on the social utility (benefit to others at group level), people can more freely categorise their own actions in positive terms and avoid negative updating of their moral self-image. As a result, people feel less guilty about their own dishonest behaviour when others (in addition to themselves) can benefit from it.
Neatly stitched to Employee Loyalty is Altruistic Cheating, to which we are all vulnerable:
When people’s dishonesty benefits others, the others are more likely to view dishonesty as morally acceptable and, therefore, feel less guilty about benefiting from the cheating. Why?
• Individuals cheat more when others can benefit from their wrongdoing
• Cheating increases with the number of beneficiaries
• Altruism serves as a moral justification for self-serving cheating
• When cheating also benefits others, it involves less guilt
Can we remove the grey ‘danger zones’ from compliance regulation?
Every time there’s a grey zone, people abuse that grey zone.
The same applies to organisations and governments initiating legislation, both of whom have challenges of how flexible their rules should be. This applies to whistleblowing in addition to codes of conduct and fiduciary responsibilities – the range of grey zones within them allows misbehaviour.
Synchronising whistleblowing legislation and process with behavioural training for Courageous Conversations will help us to figure out for ourselves what is good in a pro-socially effective way.
Having Courageous Conversations negates small problems becoming scandals or large problems but this is not an innate skill, rather it is a learnt behaviour.
We can all learn the skills and strategies to become more adept at addressing challenging social situations at work and in our personal lives by using our best thinking, values and social support.