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Cherish Your Whistle-Blowers—A Bittersweet Challenge of Leadership

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Dr. Drea Zigarmi highlights the business need for appreciating whistle-blowers and offers steps that organizations can take to create a fair and just workplace.

Whistle-blowers can be a silent, powerful tool for the ethical manager; a stimulant for a comatose corporate conscience; a "Jiminy Cricket" for an ego-driven top executive—or the organization’s worst economic nightmare. It’s a challenge for leaders to cherish their whistle-blowers. Leaders want people to speak the truth, yet they don’t want that action to cost the organization money, time, or aggravation.

Listening to whistle-blowers can result in headaches and recurring examination of certain policies. So what’s the advantage for leaders in cherishing their whistle-blowers? The beauty of supporting whistle-blowers resides in the perceptions and actions of fairness that are generated inside and outside the organization.

People leave organizations for many reasons. Perhaps the reason is a poor relationship with a boss, or a better economic offer. Sometimes people are asked to leave. Sometimes they’re dissatisfied with the way they’re being treated. However, the main reason that people leave organizations is that they perceive the organization as being unfair or unjust. [1] Employee turnover costs money and loses competence for the organization. Competence is a very rare and important commodity in the information age; therefore, having an organization that’s fair and just is essential in today’s business world.

Portrait of the Whistle-Blower

Whistle-blowing is the act of reporting an illegal, immoral, or illegitimate practice to those who might be able to affect a remedy. [2] Whistle-blowers are change agents who want to call attention to corporate behaviors they view as detrimental to the organization or to various groups of people inside or outside the organization. [3] Even though a majority of researchers see change agents or whistle-blowers as positive, some view them as reformers or informers who adversely affect the functioning of the organization. [4]

People often look with disdain on the act of whistle-blowing. Even the term whistle-blowing is somewhat demeaning, giving the sense of being a "snitch" or a "stool pigeon." The term whistle-blowing is derived from the practice of English bobbies blowing their whistles to alert the public that a crime has been committed. Anyone who alerts the community to the fact that some illegal, immoral, or illegitimate act has been committed ought to be appreciated and held in high esteem. Instead, the whistle-blower often is vilified and regarded as someone who’s trying to "feather her nest"—that is, personally gain through the act of speaking the truth about another’s actions.

The demographics of those who choose to be whistle-blowers versus those who don’t may surprise you. It is not age, marital status, educational attainment, religious affiliation, number of promotions, or supervisory position that leads to whistle-blowing. Rather, the intention to act (or not act) in a whistle-blowing situation is affected by the moral outlook of the person, organizational social norms, and organizational structure. People are more likely to report incidents of wrongdoing if they feel compelled morally, are required to do so as part of a role within the organization, or are not employed by highly bureaucratic organizations. [5]

Commitment to an organization has been hypothesized to influence the likelihood of whistle-blowing, but there’s a negative relationship between committed employees and whistle-blowing. Committed employees prone to conformity are risk-averse, concerned with loyalty, and less likely to report observed wrongdoings. Those employees who can see both the strengths and weaknesses of the organizations in which they work are more apt to speak up.

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