Whistle-blowing: Good apples, bad apples and behavioural science

Written by Paul Eccleson on Tuesday August 31, 2021

As you read this, someone in your organisation is cheating. It might be small, like using the photocopier to copy invitations for their kid’s birthday party. Or it could be a bigger, more serious cheat, like deliberately releasing raw sewerage into a harbour. Whatever it is, it will be behaviour that breaks a code of conduct or breaches a policy to which everyone will have signed up. The cheater will have ticked the box promising to comply with the code, and will almost certainly have received refresher training as a reminder, and yet continues cheating nonetheless.

How much do you know about the cheating that goes on within your firm? I am not aware of any firm that counts photocopier abuse. But consider the following – which are acceptable in your organisation?  

  • An able-bodied person regularly using the disabled toilet.
  • A field representative getting a speeding ticket.
  • Sexist jokes made on a Zoom meeting.
  • Putting pressure on staff to make numbers look more positive.

If ethics are defined by an organisation’s culture, where and how you draw the line is difficult to discern. The behaviour exhibited by staff is actually that which defines corporate culture, and   tolerance or intolerance of quotidian acts sets the moral tone of the firm. If codes are flouted, people around the perpetrators will watch and wait for a response. If it is not forthcoming, they will replicate. This behaviour is then echoed throughout the firm.

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But on a personal level, where do you draw the line? If you find it difficult to make that choice, how much more difficult is it for a whistle-blower? They aren’t usually in a position of power, nor do they tend to possess c-suite level authority. At what point is a line crossed and a warning raised? What does it take to walk towards a problem when others are ignoring it?

Though the ideal goal is to treat everyone like adults, and trust in the inherent honesty of our colleagues, every business experiences background level rule-breaking. In a study of over 4,000 employees in Nordic financial services firms, the Nordic Ethics Survey (2020) found its respondents had witnessed disrespectful behaviour, management actions counter to policy, favouritism, bullying, fact manipulation, the leaking of confidential information and a long list of other offences (18% of those surveyed had witnessed bribery). What constitutes favouritism, bullying, etc. is, of course, subjective. But it is this very subjectivity and perception that is so important. One person’s bullying can be another’s tough-mindedness and resolve.

In a similar study, the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy Survey 2018 quizzed finance professionals in UK public bodies on their experience of unethical behaviour. Respondents worked for organisations where one would hope for the utmost probity (e.g. the NHS and the UK tax authority), and which have their employees sign up to ‘7 principles of public life’ (selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership). Laudable aims. But the study found that 57% had been put under pressure to act in a professionally unethical manner, the most common request being to manipulate forecasts and budgets so that they looked more ‘optimistic’. Circumventing procurement policies and financial protocols came a close second.

When a major problem is uncovered, people generally look for a ‘bad apple’, an employee or a leader who can take the blame. The same approach is taken by firms, who respond to regulators in the same manner. The typical response to a regulatory breach goes something like: ‘We accept that there were issues, but staff have been disciplined, new staff recruited and we’ve enhanced our training’. The underlying message is that the miscreants have been got rid of and that everything is now fine. Whistle-blowers represent the opposite attitude. In an unethical or deviant culture, the whistle-blower stands apart. A ‘good apple’ looks just as much out of place in a rotten barrel as a bad apple does amongst perfect Granny Smiths. In a morally suspect culture, getting rid of good apples can seem justified. If, as the data seems to suggest, senior managers are out of touch with the prevailing culture within their organisations, a whistle-blower can be seen as a delusional troublemaker rather than a courageous individual speaking truth to power.

To make matters worse, senior managers consistently express surprise that their employees report feeling so powerless. Senior managers tend to believe policies have been communicated, their intent clearly understood and transgressions dealt with promptly and fairly. Employees usually disagree in surveys; most observed transgressions going unreported, unethical behaviour undisciplined and staff feeling that speaking up isn’t worth it since nothing will be done. Far from being a safe environment in which adult conversations can take place, staff seem to see their organisations as accepting moral compromises, and so work in a state of institutionalised helplessness.

So why is cheating so common when we are all (ostensibly) striving for an ethical organisation? Why do so few people expose bad behaviour? How on earth do we live with ourselves when we know this is going on around us? Importantly, is there anything we can do to intervene and make whistle-blowing less needed, and less daunting than it currently is? This blog series will explore these questions. It will consider the social and individual processes that surround deviant corporate behaviour and why these are strong barriers to ‘speaking up’. It will also ask how we can bring those barriers down. A field operation plan for whistle-blowers will also be built, sharing techniques that individuals can adopt to assist them in the face of corporate misdemeanours.


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