Whistleblowers: cultural guardians or snitches?

There are 5 important steps in becoming a cultural guardian

Cultural guardians help protect the magic that launched an enterprise in the first place, and there are 5 important steps in stepping up to be a cultural guardian, writes Dave Hanna

What do you do when you see something happening in your organisation that you believe is terribly wrong? For instance:

  • At a leadership team lunch, a senior executive presents a sexually-explicit gift to the only woman (and the most junior member) of the team.
  • You have knowledge of product research results that give evidence of a public safety risk, but the product is released anyway.
  • A marketer, under pressure to deliver results, pays a third party to steal confidential product documents from a competitor.

These examples are not taken from movie plots, but are actual corporate situations. They are representative of abuses we read about periodically in every part of the world and in every type of enterprise. If you chose, in any of these three examples, to voice a complaint or to report the action to higher authorities, would you be a snitch, an informer, or a whistleblower?

In each of these examples there were HR managers and others who were aware of what was going on – and said nothing. One could argue these people played it safe. Indeed, in many episodes like these, the whistleblowers have been punished both by peers and management. Many whistleblowers lost their jobs.

These examples remind us of what culture is and how it evolves. Culture is “the way we do things around here.” Culture is shaped by the actions we define as okay or not okay. History is replete with examples of cultures that began with a group of people who shared strong moral values, offered a strategic competitive advantage, and exhibited unmatched teamwork leading to prosperity.

Then many of these very successful cultures began to erode, starting with a retreat from its strong values base. When such retreats were not challenged by the system, a new (less competitive) form of “the way we do things around here” evolved.

“No one wants to join an organisation where abuse, fraud, or theft are daily survival skills”

What any culture needs are ethical guardians who reinforce the strong values that attracted them in the first place. No one wants to join an organisation where abuse, fraud, or theft are daily survival skills. Cultural guardians are invaluable to their stakeholders and to the company itself by protecting the magic that launched the enterprise in the first place. Here are three such guardians:

  • Marc Hodler, a Swiss lawyer and member of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) who confronted the scandalous measures used to secure the hosting rights for the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics.
  • Toni Hoffman, a senior Australian nurse at Queensland Health, who exposed a surgeon’s medical malpractices leading to his conviction for manslaughter. She received national honours for her role as a whistleblower.
  • Bill Bado, a Wells Fargo banker, not only refused orders to open phony bank and credit accounts, but also called an ethics hotline and sent an email to human resources, flagging unethical sales activities he was being instructed to do. Eight days later he was terminated for “tardiness”.

Mustering the courage to be a cultural guardian is not an easy choice. Review some tips in the sidebox for making this choice.

Stepping up to be a guardian 

  1. Consider the severity of the abuse: Is it unethical, against company values, or merely a new way of doing things based on a leader’s preference?
  2. Check with others: Your perception may be distorted. Check with others you trust to validate your concern. Many guardians are not the only ones who observe abuse; they are simply the only ones willing to speak up.
  3. Gather factual data: Document ethical or company values abuses (who, what, when, where and their impact on results). If the “abuse” you see is a different way of operating from the norm, ask what has changed in the competitive market place or corporate strategy that drives the change.
  4. Share your data with someone who can do something about the abuse: Be clear that your motive for doing so is to ensure we all “do the right thing.”
  5. Respond according to your own values to whatever happens next: if the authority takes action to correct the abuse – quietly celebrate the integrity of the company. If the response is negative, leads to cover up, or turns against you – consider how serious the offense is to your value system and do what you need to do.

Image source: iStock