Don’t want a whistleblower? Then maintain an ethical culture!

It’s never on a casual whim that an employee becomes a whistleblower. Whistleblowing is a big deal – an arduous process that immediately puts a member of staff at odds with a huge, established machine. The act of speaking out when others won’t poses clear risks for an employee’s wellbeing: stress will rocket immediately at the prospect of a damaged career. This will only worsen when lawyers get involved. Who wouldn’t suffer in a climate where one has to put in full-time hours and yet must also spend a great deal of extra time doing casework relating to the very same workplace? It’s exhausting just to think about.

So, why do employees do it? What’s the trigger that makes the deeply unpalatable, not to mention daunting, prospect of whistleblowing something that must be done… a moral duty? Taking a glance at some recent cases will provide us with a few clues…

“Culture of expediency”
Exhibit A is this hard-hitting press release outlining the launch of a US class-action lawsuit against Lyft. The gist of the case is that three, female Lyft drivers in Chicago were allegedly stalked and harassed by their own colleagues when word got around that they were high-earning, high-performing workers. The three women allege that they reported the campaign of harassment to Lyft bosses – but the company immediately terminated their status as Lyft Ambassadors and erased their driver accounts. They further allege that, by reacting in that way, Lyft violated the Illinois Whistleblower Act: these drivers were trying to highlight problems within the organisation, but that organisation allegedly turned on them.

Exhibit B is this fascinating Guardian interview from 7 March with astrophysicist Professor Carole Mundell, who was a whistleblower in the case of a colleague accused of harassing one of her students. Mundell was sued for libel by someone who’d referred her accused colleague for a job position. The accused’s referee felt that Mundell’s intervention had harmed his professional reputation – but the case was eventually thrown out in the High Court. In Mundell’s view, there is a “culture of expediency” in universities that is holding back a clear and consistent approach to matters such as harassment. She says: “I should never have been in the position of having to be a whistleblower.”

Away from the theme of harassment, Exhibit C is the news that supermarket giant Tesco is to pay redress for an accounting scandal that blew up in 2014. According to an International Bar Association (IBA) brief published at the dawn of the crisis, the blurry spots on Tesco’s books were flagged up by a whistleblower, who was concerned about how the finance team reconciled transactions with suppliers. According to Warwick Business School accounting guru Professor Crawford Spence, quoted in the IBA brief, “Tesco has essentially tried to recognise revenue too early and delay the recording of costs until a later date … some of this behaviour is acceptable, within limits. What Tesco appears to have done is push the boat out a bit too far, ending up with revenue that hadn’t really been earned yet and costs that probably should have been booked earlier.”

Morals and morale
What shines through from all three exhibits is that those whistleblowers had looked at their surrounding workplaces and decided that something about those environments had gone systemically wrong. Whether the issue was interpersonal or financial, those employees had all detected problems within the intrinsic cultures of their organisations.

As I’ve explained before in these blogs, I’m a culture junkie. I’m really hooked on the thought of what can be achieved by fostering an organisational culture that’s based upon respect, development and scrupulous ethics. The energy that combination generates can only help to buoy up the spirits of a staff base, encourage harder and smarter working, and drive high levels of camaraderie and morale. Now, think about what could happen when those values of respect, development and ethical standards are ignored, or even actively reversed – when something, to quote Hamlet, is “rotten in the state of Denmark”.

It’s pretty clear that the outcome would be low spirits, low morale, a low ebb of productivity and deep-seated paranoia where that all-important camaraderie should be. A whistleblower is someone who spots that rising tide of negativity and thinks: ‘This is not the way to go’. A whistleblower takes a significant gamble with their own career and livelihood to try and safeguard ethical and rule-abiding standards within the culture of their workplace, at a time when that culture may already have weathered significant damage.

A desire to do the right thing is a powerful motivator – so the onus is on organisations to ensure that they are doing the right thing, thereby minimising the sorts of cultural flaws for which single individuals would be compelled to take the greatest responsibility.

Allowed to fester
Of course, it’s not unheard of for managers and leaders to blow the whistle, too. Probably the most famous whistleblowing case of the 21st Century so far is that of former Olympus CEO Michael Woodford, who raised the alarm at the Tokyo headquarters of the optical equipment manufacturer after reading an article in a local satire mag indicating that the firm was knee deep in multimillion-dollar fraud.

In the wake of the article’s publication, Woodford dug a little deeper – but when he tried to draw his C-suite peers’ attention to the fraud problem, he encountered a wall of silence and slowly found himself ostracised within the senior-management community he’d worked for three decades to crack. A Guardian article from 2012 reveals that his fellow managers signalled their displeasure with Woodford’s pleas for openness when he attended a meeting decked out with the “most wonderful selection of sushi, but in front of my place was a tuna sandwich”. He added: “It wasn’t just any tuna sandwich – it was a tuna sandwich that would have made British Rail in 1981 proud. It was that manky. The tuna sandwich was to tell me my place in life. That’s when it really blew up.”

Soon after that, Woodford found himself the victim of a malaise that often confronts whistleblowers: retaliation. A subsequent meeting he’d scheduled to probe the fraud issue ended up turning into an ambush, where his fellow executives voted to oust him from his CEO role. And this was all because he’d highlighted a legal quagmire with potential links to organised crime. Woodford’s experience clearly demonstrates what can happen if a negative culture takes root in an organisation and is allowed to fester for too long: if negativity, particularly with traces of illegality, becomes the new normal – to the point where managers actually seek to defend it – then that culture is clearly beyond the pale.

Collaborative effort
To repeat: whistleblowing is an emergency, last-resort measure that employees reach for when they feel that all other systems are failing – not a task that they should have to turn up to work and expect to carry out on a routine basis. When an organisation hears from a whistleblower that its culture is at fault, it is imperative to address those cultural flaws, rather than turning the whistleblower into a pariah. Indeed, a well-managed culture should make whistleblowing unnecessary anyway!

Whether we are talking about issues such as harassment, fraud or even institutional racism, policies and procedures must be constructed in such a way as to safeguard staff from those things – and it is the job of the senior management team to ensure that those policies are not only communicated, but understood. Clarity is paramount, because staff must be protected from unknowingly straying into dangerous territory and causing offence, or doing something untoward.

Culture maintenance should ideally be a collaborative effort. Staff should all should feel that they own the culture they are part of, and are jointly responsible with senior managers for its ethical upkeep. Any employee should be able to say, “This is not how we do things here,” “This is not who we are,” or “This is not what we stand for,” without any fear of reprisal.

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