Should You Blow the Whistle?

The career implications of standing up for the truth

by Henry J. Lindborg

Since the advent of stakeholder management approaches in the 1980s, for-profit and not-for-profit organizations have sought to link their brands not only to improved products and service, but also to community concern and social responsibility. After a decade of corporate scandals and economic meltdown, an important risk affecting brand identity and customer retention is misconduct or negligence in areas such as health, safety, environmental protection and financial integrity.

Law, enterprise risk management, Baldrige criteria and global social responsibility standards (ISO 26000) have attempted to strengthen corporate ethics. Enterprise risk management advocates that leaders create a strong ethical work environment, and the Baldrige criteria asks for measures of ethical leadership, corporate awareness and monitoring systems. The Sarbanes-Oxley Act1 and ISO 26000 call for whistle-blowers—individuals who discover and expose wrong-doing in their organizations—to be protected from retaliation.

But life is not improving for those who actively respond to misconduct, whether it’s fraudulent fiscal transactions or activities, or supply chain risks threatening the health and safety of employees and the public. In fact, the "2011 National Business Ethics Survey" conducted by the Ethics Resource Center reported a sharp increase in retaliation against whistle-blowers.2

The retaliation can be devastating for the individual, irrevocably altering relationships with management and co-workers. It may include dismissal accompanied by attacks on the whistle-blower’s character and professional competence that result in diminished prospects for future employment.

Becoming a whistle-blower is therefore no easy choice, even for quality professionals knowledgeable of organizational behavior and accustomed to audit processes with clear guidelines for nonconformance and corrective action. The decision may, in fact, represent a career crisis with profound personal and professional consequences. With other channels exhausted, do you report what you know to those outside your organization who could help?

To better understand the significance of whistle-blowing for individuals and organizations committed to ethical practices, I consulted Tom Devine, co-author of The Corporate Whistle-blower’s Survival Guide: A Handbook for Committing the Truth,3 the most comprehensive compendium of advice and resources on the topic.

Over the past 33 years, in his work as legal director of the Government Accountability Project, a Washington D.C.-based nonprofit organization with the mission to provide protection and advocacy for whistle-blowers,4 Devine has assisted more than 5,000 "persons of conscience"—among them quality professionals—in making risky and sometimes life-altering decisions to tell the truth. Though the project began with government, it now extends to businesses of all types.

He wrote the guide because he wanted to make a difference, share lessons learned in his practice and overcome the limitations of working case-by-case.

What makes a whistle-blower? "Truth itself is a motivation," Devine said. Whistle-blowers feel compelled to speak in spite of risking alienation by co-workers and entering an unequal contest with an organization.

"It’s David and Goliath, with truth in the slingshot," he said. Of course, motives go beyond pure noble purpose and include strong emotions, including, at times, resentment.

Where should potential whistle-blowers begin? Think in terms of quality process, Devine advised. First, the potential whistle-blowers need to talk it out and understand the potential consequences of their actions. The individual needs their eyes open to the risks they are taking, and needs to discuss their plans with family members who may be affected.

Their case and their resolve must be tested before action is taken. This shouldn’t be an instance of knee-jerk actions clouded by emotion. They should seek support, which may include professional organizations. Whistle-blowers are damaged, and sometimes dispirited, by isolation. "Regardless of evidence or legal backing, it’s not enough simply to be right," Devine said.

How can quality professionals support the important role of whistle-blowers in corporate ethics? Quality professionals are natural allies with knowledge of social responsibility and quality standards. They should assist in promoting the view that employees are problem-solvers rather than dissidents and resources rather than threats. According to Devine, the role of whistle-blower should move from "traitor to the eyes and ears of [an organization] that wants to prevent the consequences of a mistake."

How about leadership? How leaders embrace whistle-blowers depends on organizational maturity. Mature organizations value the flow of information and transparency. Though leaders are human and may react defensively, some good advice is that it’s bad business to kill the messenger. Leaders should recognize that it’s a high-risk gamble to suppress the truth. As Devine put it, "Whistle-blowing may be a bitter pill, but it’s good medicine."

Why support whistle-blowers? "Ultimately, it’s about the duty of citizens to support whistle-blowers. "It’s not to slay dragons or prevail in conflicts," Devine said. "Rather, it’s no more and no less than making a difference for the better."

References and note

  1. The Sarbanes-Oxley Act is a United States federal law that set new or enhanced standards for all U.S. public company boards, management and public accounting firms. The bill was enacted as a reaction to a series of major corporate and accounting scandals.
  2. Ethics Resource Center, 2011 National Business Ethics Survey, www.ethics.org/nbes/index.php.
  3. Tom Devine and Tarek Maassarani, The Corporate Whistle-blower’s Survival Guide: A Handbook for Committing the Truth, Berrett-Koehler, 2011.
  4. For more information on the Government Accountability Project, visit www.whistleblower.org.

Henry J. Lindborg is executive director and CEO of the National Institute for Quality Improvement in Fond du Lac, WI, which provides consulting in strategic planning, organizational development and assessment. He holds a doctorate from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and teaches in a leadership and quality graduate program. Lindborg is past chair of ASQ’s Education Division and of the Education and Training Board. He also chairs the IEEE-USA’s Career Workforce Policy Committee.

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