This is the first installment in a series on whistleblowing solutions from VinciWorks’ Sandra Erez. In Part 1, Sandra provides a brief history of whistleblowing and discusses the importance of a whistleblowing portal.
It was a cold winter’s day in 1777 when 10 sailors and marines met below deck to discuss their commander’s barbaric torturing of British soldiers on their American warship. Buoyed by the winds of virtue at their back, and braving the potential storm of dissent, they obeyed their conscience and presented a petition to Continental Congress, recounting their Commander in Chief’s ghastly deeds. Used to marching to an internal rhthym of impunity, Commodorer Esek Hopkins (whose brother was one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence), aimed his ire at the rabblerousers, dismissing them from Naval service and charging them with libel. Luckily for the nascent American nation, Continental Congress was not blinded by the abuse of power, but instead came shining through like a beacon of light in a nasty storm. Bearing witness to the enactment of first whistleblowing protection law, Captain Hopkins was summarily tossed out on his Naval ass, brass buttons and all, while the government dredged up the funds for the whistleblower’s legal defense costs.
Fast forward to 1971, when another do-gooder abiding by his conscience leaks the Pentagon Papers to the press to expose the government’s blatant mishandling of the Vietnam War. Leaning badly toward the side of wrong, the government’s attempts to plug the holes of the sinking ship with disinformation did not hold water against the cascading flood of truth. A subsequent quote from this famous whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg succintly captures the pervading feeling that seemingly respectable people in positions of power cannot always be trusted to do the right thing: “Intelligent, patriotic, conscientious men can in secret pursue monstrous policies,” he says. “In other words, in the darkness, prevented from any public awareness, very smart men can act not only stupidly, but also crazily.”
As the scandals continue to billow and unfurl like the sails on a broken mast, unethical doings rise to the surface in government and corporate workplaces like garbage on the sea. The reality is that 200 years of whistleblowing has only chipped away at the patina of the core problem (which unfortunately remains unsolvable) – the dark and unpredictable side of human behavior intertwined with the abuse of power.
If we hold up etymology as a mirror to evolving events, we learn that the word “whistleblowing” has morphed over time from two separate words to one: In an 1883 U.S. local gazette, police officers were described as “whistle blowers” whose skills successfully stopped a riot. In the 1960s, Ralph Nader, in a journalistic attempt to shift the nuance away from snitch and informant (and from his own blame), hyphenated the word and put a positive spin on it with an emphasis on civic duty. The unified compound word whistleblowing, as we know it today, is the verb for exposing/reporting illegal or unethical behavior and has permeated our existence as if it was always there.
Still, even until today, the person blowing the whistle (whether internally within the organization or externally to the press) would usually do so as a last resort. We only need to conjure up shockingly high statistics for workplace retaliation (or Meryl Streep, aka Karen Silkwood, being forcibly scrubbed down for radioactive particles) to continue cowering in fear at our desks rather than report to a chain of command that might include our perpetrator in its management line-up. This fear of both the potential futility and/or retaliation generally stops the potential whistleblower dead in their tracks – whether they are bystanders or victims.
The ongoing failure of organizations to support a mechanism to report wrongdoings usually stems from either the organizations’ unwillingness to address wrongdoing (thinking it will only cause more damage) or its failure to realize the availability or inherent worth of whistleblowing software solutions. If the #MeToo movement has proved anything, it is that whistleblowing is here to stay, like it or not – and now every employee can potentially rock the boat with their story that they couldn’t report… until now.
In fact, corporations once loath to open their proverbial Pandora’s Box need to recognize the value of an integrated whistleblowing system as a critical linchpin in the corporate box of ethical tools. Employing company-wide training, policies and handbooks, etc. will certainly point the organization in the right direction, ethically. But like a ship without a rudder, people adrift in a sea of injustice will have nowhere to turn without a safe harbor to dock their grievances without fear of getting sacked or worse.
Compelling sexual harassment training, for example, will significantly raise awareness of unacceptable behavior, besides providing instructions and guidance in accordance with the legislation – but let’s not fool ourselves – the only real deterrent to the perpetrator will be fear of being found out and subsequently held accountable for their crimes. Fear of the consequences of wrongdoing must be infinitely stronger than the fear of reprisal for people to come forward – especially in hierarchical, entrenched workplace environments. It is clear that in the absence of a whistleblowing safety net, the chances for disclosure are significantly reduced, if not nullified.
Let’s face it, whistleblowing was never a warm and fuzzy topic. That’s why the new buzzwords “transparent and ethical” ring strangely dissonant when issued from the mouths of corporate management. As history has shown us, people in power were mostly immune from punishment owing to tight controls they either put in place or abused.
However, now faced with the challenges of navigating the stormy waves of the #MeToo era, organizations need to anchor their ethical culture to technology by implementing an integrated, data-driven, whistleblowing portal across the company. Corporate governance needs to be proactive and provide the means to unearth unwanted behaviors before they grow, fester and eventually drag the company down to the depths of the ocean floor… to rest alongside Commodore Hopkins’ tarnished brass buttons.
Next: Bells & Whistles: Whistleblowing Portal or Corporate Hotline? In the next installment of the Whistle While You Work series, we’ll talk about whistleblowing solutions and best practices.