Challenging norms has been met with harsh criticism and hostility throughout history. Intellectuals have been humiliated by their peers for theories that are now universally accepted. Galileo was put under house arrest for asserting that Earth was not the center of the universe because this went against the understanding of the church at the time. Heroes such as Martin Luther King Junior have even been killed because they stood up for human rights and justice. Very recently, Dr. Li Wenliang was summoned by Chinese authorities and required to sign a statement denouncing his warnings about the coronavirus. Despite our deep respect for those who stood up against the faulty beliefs and practices of the past, we are quick to shut down those who challenge norms in the present.
Whistleblowers are individuals who report cases of unethical behavior. They may call out a single individual or an entire organization. Regardless, it is likely that doing so will put them in the uncomfortable and even dangerous position of challenging the norm. “Whistleblowers: An Early Detection System,” by Theresa Agovino, uses the recent impeachment of President Donald Trump to illustrate the bad reputation that often comes with being a whistleblower. Agovino writes, “As President Donald Trump and his allies fought his impeachment, they vilified the whistleblower who triggered it, leaking the identity of the individual they thought responsible. Similarly, employees who shine a spotlight on unethical or illegal dealings in corporations are frequently punished rather than rewarded.” Although most whistleblowers will never face as extreme a situation as raising concerns about the President of the United States, the backlash they receive for challenging a leader, or a common practice in their workplace, can be quite severe.
Why should we respect and promote whistleblowers? According to “Whistleblowers: An Early Detection System,” early whistleblowing can alert business leaders of a problem before it becomes a crisis. Agovino cites the research of Kyle Welch, an assistant professor of accounting at the George Washington University School of Business, which found that organizations with more internal whistleblowing had smaller fines and less legal settlements than those with less reporting. Although whistleblowers get labeled as snitches or receive negative attention for disrupting the norm, they are likely to save their organizations from greater harm down the line.
Knowing that whistleblowers play an important role in ending corrupt practices and keeping organizations out of serious trouble, what can employers do to protect and support them? According to “Whistleblowers: An Early Detection System,” whistleblowers are less likely to report concerns if they don’t believe that they will be properly addressed. Common fears are that the report will be ignored, that the whistleblower’s identity will be leaked, and that reporting will damage the whistleblower’s career. Employers need to assure employees that their reported concerns are appreciated and that they will be addressed promptly. The article recommends expressing these sentiments during the interviewing and onboarding process in addition to regular training. It also points out that the procedures for reporting unethical practices must be easy and well known. Finally, the article states that employers must do their best to convey the fact that a report is being investigated. Due to confidentiality issues and reporter anonymity, it may be hard to provide updates, but the effort must be made so that employees know that their concerns are taken seriously. Some whistleblower hotlines, including Red Flag Reporting, provide mechanisms for communicating with an anonymous reporter. This allows for the whistleblower to receive important updates and to provide additional information as needed.
In summary, whistleblowers deserve respect and protection from retaliation. Although we appreciate those who spoke out against the unethical practices of the past, we are quick to judge people who do so in the present. In many cases, people fail to see any fault with the way things are, thus they attack the whistleblower for not letting things go. In other cases, those deliberately involved in corrupt practices shift attention back on the whistleblower by attacking his/her character and credibility. The mindset that whistleblowers are the problem must end in order for organizations to maintain integrity and avoid serious legal problems. Remember, the whistleblower is simply bringing a concern to light. Facts, when evaluated by objective people, will determine if the concern is legitimate.