June 11, 2012

Shattering the Myth of the Whistleblower as a Rogue and Disloyal Employee

By Gordon Schnell

In its recently issued report titled Inside the Mind of a Whistleblower, the Ethics Resource Center (ERC) has made some surprising findings on how whistleblowers behave.  Perhaps the most surprising of all is that virtually none of them   — a mere 3% — go directly to the government to report the fraud or misconduct they have witnessed.  Instead, they first work within their company to expose and attempt to remedy the wrong.  They do this by reporting to their immediate supervisor, or if there is a lack of trust on that front, to someone higher up the chain.  According to the ERC study, it is only after they attempt to work it out internally do these whistleblowers then take their grievances to the government.  Even then, it is still only a small number that ever reports to the government — well less than 20 percent of all whistleblowers.

Also surprising among the findings was what most forcefully drives whistleblowers to go to the government in the first place.  It is not the possibility of a substantial monetary award.  That motivating factor was at the bottom of the list.  The significantly more compelling inducements center around a genuine interest in protecting the public from serious ongoing harm.  Even the desire to keep the company out of trouble comes in noticeably higher than any financial bounty as a reason for reaching out to the government.

Clearly, these findings go a long way in debunking the perception of the typical whistleblower held by some and promoted by many.  That is, the disgruntled employee putting his or her personal interests before the company; with no real concern for the public well-being or any of his or her corporate colleagues; and driven only by the possibility of a sizeable financial prize.  What this study does instead is present today’s whistleblower as a devoted, honest and thoughtful employee working with the company to remedy serious wrongdoing.  It thus attacks head-on the idea of the whistleblower as the corporate snitch or troublemaker that should be isolated and abandoned.  As the ERC study concludes, embracing — even encouraging these newfound heroes — would be the most sensible corporate approach to addressing and preventing fraud within its ranks.

And as for those hefty whistleblower rewards, why offer them at all if they factor so minimally into the whistleblower’s decision to come forward?  The ERC study gets at that question too.  It found that about one-third of the roughly 70 million US workers who annually witness fraud or other misconduct still fail to report it to anyone.  That means that there are more than twenty million workers in this country who every year see something but refuse to say something.  It is for this disinclined constituency that some additional prodding is obviously required, not to mention to temper the serious harm — from rebuke and retaliation — that so often befalls those courageous enough to step forward.

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