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A Strong Workplace Culture Should Prevent Retaliation Against Whistleblowers

Results From the 2018 Global Business Ethics Survey

Integrity is an essential ingredient in being an ethical person. Personal integrity is an innate moral conviction to stand against things that are not virtuous or morally right. To have integrity is to do what you think is right regardless of the consequences attached with your decisions. Persons with high integrity are usually described as trustworthy, reliable, and accountable for their actions. In Aristotelian ethics, “There is at least one virtue recognized by tradition which cannot be specified except with reference to the wholeness of human life – the virtue of integrity or constancy.”

Integrity is one of the fundamental values employers seek (or should seek) in the employees they hire. Integrity is the foundation of a person who demonstrates sound moral and ethical principles at work. Honesty is an essential part of integrity. It means to tell the truth as you know it and don’t hold back even when your words and actions might harm another. A person of integrity sees truth above all else. Otherwise, what is right and what is wrong get shoved aside for expediency.

According to the 2018 Global Business Ethics Survey prepared by the Ethics & Compliance Initiative, 69 percent of employees said they found a way to report misconduct to top management. That’s an all-time high for the survey and good news for developing an ethical culture. However, 16 percent of respondents said they felt some kind of pressure to compromise their standards to get their job done. Moreover, 84 percent of people who said they felt pressure when they observed an outright violation in the workplace.

Regarding retaliation, the study found 44 percent of respondents indicated that “if they reported misconduct to management, they experienced retaliation for having done so and that rate has doubled since the last survey.” The problem is that retaliation is an indicator of a declining workplace culture. If you think that if you come forward to report wrongdoing you are going to be harmed, the likelihood is you’ll be quiet in the future and problems will persist.

The results clearly show that people who say they work in a strong culture (88%) are more likely to report wrongdoing if they observed it. The importance of a strong culture that promotes ethical behavior is the key to building integrity into organizational systems. Whistleblower

What would you do if the firm you work for violates environmental laws by the illegal dumping of toxic waste? Let’s assume you’ve spoken to the Human Resources Department and were told the company believes it is a minor infraction and won’t be detected by the EPA. Nevertheless, you feel uncomfortable going along with something you believe is not only ethically wrong but violates the law.

One option is to say nothing – be a team player. After all, you didn’t commit the wrongful act. You reported it to the proper group. What more can you be expected to do?

Another option is to bring your concerns to the highest level of authority in the firm. This could be dangerous because it’s probable that they know about it and have approved the inaction. Moreover, you may be retaliated against (demoted, pay cut, fired).

Is there a third option? Should you go external and report it to your state’s EPA? Whistleblowing is a moral act because you are trying to right a wrong. You are attempting to reverse the harm done to others by the violation. Just imagine if toxic waste was dumped in a river-bed and poisoned the local drinking water.

What’s wrong with ethics in the workplace today is employees feel reluctant to blow the whistle. While this is understandable it does speak of a lack of integrity. Integrity is an intrinsic value motivated by knowing the difference between right and wrong; good and bad. And, be willing to go the extra mile to voice your concerns when departures from ethical standards exist or laws are broken.

The best way to build integrity in an organization is for top management to set an ethical tone at the top that reporting alleged wrongdoing is the way to go for employees, perhaps through an anonymous hotline. The organization can’t take corrective action if it doesn’t know about it. Yes, the reporting employee may be at risk but should take the ethical high road and go on record that an action taken (and covered-up) is contrary their values; they have the integrity to report because of strong personal values; and they are putting the company on notice that if their improper behavior persists, the employee may have no other choice but to report it to external authorities.

Let me conclude with a famous quote from Zig Ziglar, an American author and motivational speaker:  “With integrity, you have nothing to fear, since you have nothing to hide. With integrity, you will do the right thing, so you will have no guilt.”

Posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on December 18, 2019. Dr. Mintz recently published a book, Beyond Happiness and Meaning: Transforming Your Life Through Ethical Behavior, that explains how doing the right thing and being a good person can enhance well-being. The book is available on Amazon. Visit his website and sign up for his newsletter, follow him on Facebook and Twitter.