Impact of Culture on Whistleblowing

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Imagine you’re at work and find a document that shows your company has been giving misleading information or you see a worker behaving abusively, would you speak up?  In other words, would you become a whistleblower?

NPR’s science correspondent Shankar Vedantam reported on a new set of studies focused on whether it one’s personality – commitment to ethics  – that determines behavior (i.e., heroes always do the right thing). Or, is it determined by the environment, in which case it could be the extent to which leadership sets an ethical tone for the company and/or the extent to which the informal culture of the workers supports ethical behavior.

David  Baier and his colleagues at the University of Michigan looked at survey data covering 30,000 people and found that 20% of the people reported seeing or hearing incidents of people violating their company’s Code of Conduct, but only half of them spoke up about it. Moreover, they found people’s actions wasn’t triggered by differences in leadership’s commitment to ethics, but to how peers informally support ethical behavior.

To test this hypothesis, he studied of 100 adults divided them into teams focused on solving problems. If they solved it correctly they would get a $300 prize. They were told they were not allowed to go on the internet to get information to help them. They then sat down at computers to do the work and the experiment left. At that time, they got a text message from one member saying that the co-worker had an iPhone and could use that to get on the internet to get information. Now comes the experimental manipulation: for the “ethical†group, the response from the other workers is “this isn’t right, it’s cheating, we shouldn’t do itâ€; for the “unethical†group, other workers responded “great, I wish I had thought of that. Now we’ll surely winâ€.  He found that when the co-workers were ethical, 67% reported a problem; when the co-workers were unethical only 33% reported a problem.

Baier concludes that while 20% of people may just do the right thing, and another 10% do what’s in their best self-interest, regardless of environment, for most people ethical decisions like whistleblowing is heavily influenced by their environment.  As a personality/social psychologist who focused on studies which tried to determine the role of environment on people’s acts of altruism, diffusion of responsibility, obedience to authority, conformity to stereotypical roles, etc., Baier’s results are consistent with the great body of research.

The implications for leaders interested in an ethical workplace, leaders need to reinforce their commitment to ethical behaviors every day in order to create a broad-based culture in which all workers are similarly committed.   What’s your experience?