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The Whistleblower Dilemma – Serving Fairness or Loyalty

Posted  August 8, 2013

By Gordon Schnell

As the escapades of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden have demonstrated all too well, there are typically two directly conflicting sides to the whistleblower narrative.  Whistleblowers are heroes for speaking out and trying to remedy what they perceive to be some serious act of unfairness or injustice.  Or they are scoundrels for betraying the loyalty and trust of their colleagues.  It is this dichotomy, between fairness and loyalty, which strongly influences whether individuals exposed to wrongdoing will blow the whistle on the misbehavior, or simply keep their heads in the sand.

That was the finding of a series of studies to be published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology by Adam Waytz of Northwestern University and James Dungan and Liane Young of Boston College.  They conducted several tests to get inside the mind of a would-be whistleblower and examine the internal struggle that typically exists between the ideals of fairness and loyalty.  The results were not all that surprising.  Those that favored fairness over loyalty were significantly more likely to step up and say something when they see something that bothers them morally or ethically.  Whereas those that hold loyalty more dearly are significantly less likely to blow the whistle on their colleagues or peers.

But what was surprising about the results of the study was the finding that individuals are not necessarily locked into a preconceived sense of fairness or loyalty which predetermines whether they would ever be whistleblowers.  Rather, individuals can be influenced or manipulated into becoming or not becoming a whistleblower depending on how their internal fairness or loyalty buttons are pushed.  Indeed, the authors of the study concluded in a piece they wrote for the New York Times that “even a nudge can affect people’s whistleblowing behavior.”

This came out of an exercise where participants were asked to write an essay on the importance of either fairness or loyalty.  They were then exposed to actual misconduct and tested on whether they were willing to report it and recommend adverse action against the wrongdoer.  The study showed that those tasked with writing about the importance of fairness were significantly more likely to report and seek redress for the witnessed misconduct than those tasked with writing about loyalty.

What this means is that depending on what outcome is sought, steps can be taken to encourage or discourage the proclivity to blow the whistle.  For example, companies seeking to encourage internal reporting and compliance could emphasize in their mission statements, honor codes and internal PR campaigns the notion of fairness, justice and meritocracy.  And to sway those who value loyalty above all else, they could reframe whistleblowing as an act of “larger loyalty” to the company.

On the other hand, if the goal is to discourage whistleblowing, it can be characterized as a form of treachery or betrayal that does significantly more harm than good.  That clearly is the way the government is playing the intelligence leaks of Mr. Snowden and Bradley Manning, the former army intelligence analyst who the government is seeking to put away for life.  The government does not consider them whistleblowers, but traitors whose transgressions have placed our national security at risk.  The government no doubt wants to discourage any future whistleblowing when it comes to classified military or intelligence information.

There has been a great deal of study about what makes whistleblowers tick and what ultimately drives them to step forward when doing so puts them on the firing line of isolation, retaliation, resentment and, in the case of Snowden and Manning, life in prison.  What separates the Waytz study from these prior studies is how it broadens the discussion to include a moral conflict with which virtually everyone struggles.  For this reason, Waytz and his team offer what might be the beginning of a clear path to unlocking much of the mystery of what goes on inside the mind of a whistleblower.