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ChangingMinds Blog! > Blog Archive > 10-Nov-13


Sunday 10-November-13

Culture, Courage and Whistleblowers

Imagine you are working at a company, or maybe a government agency, and notice that somebody is doing something that is against the rules. Perhaps they are breaking company policy. Maybe they are breaking laws. Or what they are doing seems just plain wrong.

Would you tell?

It probably depends on the culture. A basic rule of many cultures is that the group should be preserved, and that those who get the group into trouble with outsiders become social outcasts, their careers derailed and may even lose their jobs. In extreme cases, where the target of the whistleblowing is the government, the whistleblower may even find themselves imprisoned.

Given the risks, it takes a lot of courage and conviction to blow the whistle. Courage happens where the pressure to act consistently with values overcomes the fear of punishment, and perhaps it is a mark of our society and of human nature that so few people will blow the whistle.

Whistleblowers can be both good and bad for organizations. They are much better at detecting fraud and other problems than auditors and let the company address problems directly before external intervention is needed. They help keep the organization honest and remind them of corporate obligations and values. And in the end, through the honesty that they force, they make a company more profitable and a better place to work.

Whistleblowing is bad is when it leads to stress and fear. When many people know things are wrong but say nothing for fear of reprisals, then the company may be silently sliding into deep trouble. There is also a pragmatic consideration of the line below which a little rule-breaking is socially acceptable and beyond which it becomes a serious problem. If people blow the whistle at the slightest infraction, and where outsiders get involved, when the issue could well be resolved internally, then whistleblowers may in practice be doing nobody a service apart from themselves. A culture of whistleblowing can also cause fear and mutual suspicion between peers as everyone spies on everyone.

Whistleblowing done well happens when there is a strong culture and and explicit system to handle rule-breaking. It should not be harsh, so people go in fear of breaking the smallest rule. When rules are broken, the people involved should be treated at first humanely, educating them at to what is acceptable and not. The system itself should also be examined, for example where a strong focus on results and a weak focus on values leads to corrupt practices. In such cases (and this happens often) it is the system that must be changed, which often involves changes in management practices.

In the end, though, the problem is often more about people having courage to blow the whistle rather than people getting whistle-happy. While we can be stupidly brave, most of us are more pragmatically cautious.

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