No More "Whistleblowers" at Work

The chief aim of corporate compliance is to prevent, detect and correct problems before they lead to the stiff penalties the law imposes when the public is harmed, careers are ruined, and the impact of illegal acts lingers.
In fact, the Federal Sentencing Guidelines reward firms whose compliance programs take defined steps to find out and fix problems before they cause damage. Newly proposed amendments will provide additional incentives to firms that act aggressively to maintain legal and ethical workplaces.
As I’ve written elsewhere, most of us would have been better off if we’d been able to stop the practices that brought us financial chicanery and systemic disaster, recalls of dangerous pharmaceuticals and automotive products, oil spewing through the Gulf before rather than after they happened. These are things we know, but don’t effectively address.
There are laws in place to prevent retaliation. Organizations also devote massive resources to hotlines, compliance training, corporate policies and structures.
Yet, these efforts have often been less than successful in effectively encouraging individuals to come forward and alert others before bad practices turn into outright catastrophes. If they had been successful, retaliation claims would not be on the rise and the whole issue of compliance would be a stagnant rather than growing problem.
Recently, when I was interviewed for a New York Times article on the practical issues that employees face when they bring ethical issues forward, I offered several tips to help identify signals to discover illegal or unethical conduct.
It’s usually easy for us to recognize the obvious signs of a potentially serious violation. What’s really hard is to know what, if anything, to do. This is not because of a lack of systems, processes, or policies. Instead, it is the lack of organizational credibility: People usually know where to go to complain but, often don’t believe their organization really wants to know about problems.
It doesn’t help that we call these people who step forward and identify issues “whistleblowers.” The word calls to mind a traffic cop literally blowing a whistle stopping you from jaywalking.
Over the years, I’ve noticed most people across many industries are reluctant to “blow the whistle” because they don’t want to be labeled as troublemakers. Many believe that they would be better off just focusing on what they can accomplish rather than problems that no one wants to think about, much less fix. Others rightly feel that their organizations would prefer to rid themselves of whistleblowers rather than the problems they uncover.
Organizations that really want to root out problems need to turn around this whole perception. Fair warning: This is not easy, especially if the organization’s culture includes examples of individuals who were ignored, ostracized or released for speaking up. Here are 5 tips to help you create a welcoming environment for people who step forward and speak up about problems:

  • This is a leadership issue first and a compliance issue second. Hotlines and complaint systems are part of a commitment to find out about issues but not the commitment itself.
  • Leaders have to regularly talk about and demonstrate their willingness to hear about problems, no matter how serious. If leaders don’t deliver it themselves – and friendly – the message won’t take hold in the organization. Remember, the natural instinct we all have is to keep quiet rather than to speak up, especially in a challenging economy where jobs are scarce, the risk of job loss is so high, and employees are already wary about speaking up.
  • Employees and leaders need to understand why finding out about and fixing problems benefits everyone – really. If they don’t see how raising problems will benefit them, their organization or the public, there’s less motivation for them to do so and more motivation for leaders to ignore or stifle complaints. Leaders should make it clear that they won’t tolerate actions that prevent them from finding out about problems. They must also clearly state: If we find out about problems, it can help our organization:
    • Improve our products or safety
    • Reduce costs
    • Protect our reputation
    • Minimize the burdens of later fixes
    • Demonstrate our commitment to our values
    • Prove we are committed to operating legally
  • Leaders at all levels need to understand retaliation, and the behavioral steps they have to apply everyday to encourage employees to talk to them about all problems. This involves not only what they say when they are told about issues, but how they react in terms of body language and tone of voice and how they follow through in responding to concerns. This is a very specific behavioral model that, in years of practice, we have learned makes employees believe that their organization and direct managers are serious about uncovering issues.
  • Finally, let’s get rid of the term “whistleblowers” with all of the negative associations it produces. How about calling people who come forward organizational guardians, protectors or friends. Surely we can think of something more welcoming itself in tone than company cops, stoolies or tattlers. I welcome your suggestions in the comments section below.

Stephen M. Paskoff, Esq., is president and CEO of Atlanta-based ELI Inc., a provider of award-winning learning solutions that transform complex laws and ethical codes of conduct into simple behavioral rules that help organizations improve employee performance, reduce legal and ethical risk, and create inclusive, productive and legally compliance workplaces. Mr. Paskoff is the former co-chair of the American Bar Association’s Compliance Law Training and Communication Subcommittee. He can be contacted at

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