Whistleblowing – organizations are not bad!
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I attended the International Whistleblowing Research Network Conference last week and was surprised by the lack of research available on whistleblowing but impressed by the enormous efforts of a small group of people that are trying to rectify that situation.

One of other frustrations that I experienced however was an assumption by many of the researchers that organizations are presumed to be ‘bad’.  This presumption is truly understandable when you hear even just a few of the personal testimonies from whistleblowers (and in some cases the last words from such individuals) – and a lot of the passion for this subject comes from ex-whistleblowers and those that support them.  Although one or two of the presentations presented contrasting views, I also want to mount a case for the defence.

As someone that has worked in and for multiple organizations in many industries over the last twenty (and more) years, I have seen my far share of the good, the bad and the ugly.  I have personally experienced being bullied and worked with managers and employees who have claimed (in my view both legitimately and in spite) wrongdoing.  I have worked in banking environments where shouting at employees was accepted as legitimate behaviour (by the employees!) but adherence to daily limits was compulsory and Compliance had a seat on the Board. 

My (brief) argument for the defence of organisations is threefold – philosophical, practical and behavioural.

From a philosophical perspective, an organization is not a mindless entity that views the world in black and white.  Organizations are made up of people, people who bring their own views, dreams and concerns to the workplace.  Organizations operate at a variety of different psychological, societal and operational levels; and these vary over geography, time, work group and between individuals.  In practice, to assume that whistleblowers will all be treated alike even within one organization is both simplistic and unrealistic.  Treating an organization as a single entity also allows individuals to abdicate personal responsibility for their own actions.

From a practical research perspective, whilst I would strongly agree that organizational culture is a powerful force, there are research fields, industries and individuals that have created demonstrably powerful approaches to working with organizations to change their ‘culture’.  People change and as they change, so does the organizations culture.  While the role of leadership is especially critical, the relationships between managers and their employees is a critical driver to how whistleblowing is treated in organizations.  Why do some employees become ‘whistleblowers’ whilst others become ‘innovation champions’ or ‘quality improvement experts’?  What are the motivations that drive the reactions of those line managers and senior managers who are presented with whistleblowing claims – power, disruption, fear, frustration, a combination of all of them?  I also find it interesting that certain industries experience far greater levels of whistleblowing than others.  Why?  It’s an answer that I’m sure will tell us an enormous amount the nature of organizational responses to whistleblowers. 

Finally, from a behavioural perspective, I believe long-lasting change in how whistleblowers are treated can only come from using both a carrot and a stick.  Whistleblowing is currently focused on the stick – legislation, protection, fines etc – but this often encourages people within organizations to either a) do the minimum, b) try to ignore it, or c) try harder to suppress whistleblowing.  I’m not advocating a movement away from legal protection (this is a subject I will come back to however!), but words on a piece of paper are simply a form of communication and by itself does not change behaviour!   As readers of my previous blogs will already know, I am passionate about linking whistleblowing behaviour to positive organizational outcomes – greater levels of innovation and employee engagement.  By creating links between the behaviour that seeks to improve an organization with positive outcomes, we can move towards a well rounded platform for change.

Whistleblowers are courageous but human, with human frailties and motives.  The employees who negatively respond to whistleblowing claims are also human.  Rather than seeking to demonise an organization and therefore all of those inside it, let’s recognize the very human aspects of whistleblowing rather than seeking easy answers.