The Rise of Retaliation: Whistleblowing’s Ugly Sidekick

It’s hard to justify speaking out when so many are punished for doing the right thing

Posted by Dawn Lomer in Ethics & Compliance, Whistleblower on March 13th, 2013

If you saw someone doing something unethical at work, would you speak up? Would you go to management and report what you saw? What if it meant losing your job, your friends, your reputation? These are the questions that whistleblowers face in today’s workplace and what stops many witnesses from speaking out, even when they know they should.

It takes extraordinary courage to blow the whistle on the people with whom we work, particularly on those in more senior positions. Luckily, some do take the risk, but not as many as you might think. The most recent national survey from the Ethics Resource Center reported that more than a third of us (35 per cent) witness misconduct and stay quiet.

And who can blame us? Blowing the whistle is risky. History is full of stories of whistleblowers who suffered severe consequences for doing the right thing. Retaliation has ranged from being snubbed by colleagues to bullying, job loss and even physical harm.

Retaliation Rising

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Statistics show that retaliation against employee whistleblowers is rising. According to the Ethics Resource Centre’s 2011 National Business Ethics Survey, 22 per cent of employees who reported misconduct also experienced some form of retaliation for reporting it.

While many companies encourage their employees to report misconduct, too many don’t know how to deal with the corresponding retaliation against the whistleblower. Getting an employee to come forward a second time to report the retaliation is a mammoth task, given the amount of courage it takes to come forward with the initial complaint.

Monitoring Retaliation

So how can companies ensure that the whistleblowers they rely on to report wrongdoing continue to come forward? The answer lies in a retaliation-free culture in the workplace, but it’s easier to talk about than implement.

A retaliation-free culture begins with a strong conviction from the top of the organization that employees should never be punished for doing the right thing. To communicate this message throughout the organization, the following four elements are critical:

  • Written policy
  • Department-specific training with supplemental training for supervisors
  • Surveys to collect anonymous feedback from employees about retaliation
  • A tone from the top that demonstrates that retaliation will be punished

Building a robust ethics and compliance program is more critical than ever for organizations of all sizes, in all industries. When company leaders demonstrate a commitment to justice, act with integrity and invest in ethics and compliance programs that help employees respond to ethics issues, whistleblowers will have the confidence to come forward when necessary, without fear of retaliation.

Dawn Lomer
Dawn Lomer

Managing Editor

Dawn Lomer is the managing editor at i-Sight Software and a Certified Fraud Examiner (CFE). She writes about topics related to workplace investigations, ethics and compliance, data security and e-discovery, and hosts i-Sight webinars.