Over the past few months, we’ve seen a substantial increase in retaliation against whistleblowers. Perhaps it’s a matter of silencing an opposing voice in troubled times, of not wanting to know about still more bad news. At any rate, it needs to stop: we all must work to protect whistleblowers, because in the end retaliation hurts us all.
Last Thursday, CNBC posted an interview with Patricia Harned, president of the Ethics Resource Center, about the release of the annual Ethics Survey. The biggest news that Harned shared is the significant increase in retaliation against whistleblowers for reporting ethics and compliance violations.
Unfortunately, the increase isn’t surprising. In 2007, retaliation increased 12%, in 2009 it was 15% and now it’s 22%. The retaliation involves everything from behaviors that are subtle (such as being left out of key discussions or team projects) to more overt disciplinary action (such as being transferred, not being able to get a bonus or a raise or being transferred). Thirty-one percent of employees even experience physical harm to their person or property for having reported wrongdoing in the workplace.
The challenge for business is creating an environment where people are comfortable and protected when alerting management about unethical behavior. According to Harned, creating such an environment is a C-level issue, what we’ve always referred to as tone-from-the-top. The ERC’s report goes on to say that more than more in three employees don’t think their business executives are ethical leaders. That’s an almost unbelievable figure.
Here’s another quote from Harned that I found very interesting concerning the correlation between unethical behavior and economic conditions: “When the economy is better, we see more misconduct. That’s because the CEOs are focusing on performance, taking business risks, and they don’t do as good a job of reinforcing the idea that business integrity is a high priority. In bad economic times, leadership is still concentrating on the bottom line, but they also communicate frequently about the importance of integrity, the value they place on their employees, and right behavior.”
In any economy, a strong commitment, to both ethics and an intolerance of retaliation, is an absolute requirement. It’s what drives lasting success.