Employees Wary of Being Whistleblowers

A new survey by Gartner found that around half of employees do not choose to speak up when they witness, or learn about, misconduct in the workplace.

When an employee notices an unethical or illegal action taken by a manager, there’s likely a moment when that employee pauses and thinks, “I don’t know if I want to be the one to report them.” Their mind might revert back to childhood, when they didn’t want to be the one who “told on” a classmate.

A new survey by Gartner shows that, unsurprisingly, employees do not choose to speak up when they witness, or learn about, misconduct. “Around half of employees take a more pragmatic, not idealistic, approach to reporting workplace misconduct and only pursue it if they see no harm, or even some personal benefit, to themselves,” the study notes.

Additional top findings:

  • Chief compliance and ethics officers (CCOs) typically rely on three tactics to improve employee reporting of workplace misconduct: reporting ease, employee safety, and personal responsibility.
  • Most CCOs overemphasize the importance of improving reporting ease, but personal responsibility to report has the greatest impact on employee reporting.
  • CCOs can encourage employee reporting by creating a new reporting value proposition that speaks to employees’ personal responsibility.

The Right Thing to Do?

When an employee overhears a manager speaking to a colleague about a potential new hire, and overhears references to factors that are illegal to consider in a new hire, what is the right thing to do? It is clear that, according to most companies’ compliance training, the right thing to do is to report what was overheard to Human Resources. That is ethically and legally the right thing to do, but is it the right thing for the employee to do from a self-protective point of view? The employee will wonder if they will truly stay anonymous as the whistleblower. And if they are not, they will worry about potential blowback, especially if the boss continues in their position.

“It may surprise many compliance leaders to know that just 54 percent of employees feel that reporting workplace misconduct is the right thing to do,” Chris Audet, senior director, Research, at Gartner, told Gartner contributor Jordan Turner. “Employees understand it is what they are supposed to do, but in many cases, they aren’t sure that doing so will work out well for them or their teams, so they choose to keep quiet.”

The problem is the employee doesn’t have an incentive for reporting. “A typical compliance approach to reporting drives trust and emphasizes anti-retaliation policies, but that’s somewhat misguided. Employees have very poor perceptions of reporting being beneficial: Only a third believe reporting will lead to a better work environment or improve their team’s morale or performance, and just over 1 in 5 employees think reporting will be good for their career,” the study reveals.

Meaningful Changes

Having a workplace in which there are examples employees remember of meaningful changes made is a good start. It can start with improvements that relate to employee quality of life and satisfaction rather than fixing ethical violations. For example, if multiple employees voice concern about a colleague, whom they all contend is toxic, and the colleague is allowed to continue in their job because they do their work well, it sends a message that the company is not responsive. Contrast that with a company that takes action, first trying to change the toxic employee’s behavior, and then, ultimately, deciding to terminate their employment. When employees have that experience in their memory, they may be more likely to speak up when they notice other undesirable behaviors, including those that are unethical.

At a small company or in a small work group, it is unrealistic to offer a whistleblower employee anonymity. In those cases, the better approach may be to get the whistleblower’s colleagues involved after an investigation is done, simultaneous with informing the potential wrongdoer that they have been found guilty of unethical or illegal behavior. That way, the wrongdoer won’t have the ability to get ahead of Human Resources and frame the conversation. When all employees are brought into the loop, it offers the whistleblower protection. The boss can’t run around speaking to each employee to find out who told on them. Everyone will already know what the boss did, and will have been told in advance not to communicate with them about the findings of the investigation, and, most importantly, not to engage in discussion about the whistleblower.

Reward Rather than Punish

There also can be an example set in how the whistleblower is treated by the company following their action. If the employee is good at their job, the act of reporting unethical or illegal behavior can be considered a criteria for promotion. Even if never announced publicly, word probably will get out that the employee was the whistleblower; in fact, the whistleblower may voluntarily tell others. Knowing that an employee was rewarded, rather than punished, for reporting a manager’s transgression will show others that doing the same would be in their own interest—in addition to simply being the right thing to do.

How do you encourage employees to come forward to report unethical or illegal behavior? How do you make it the right choice, both morally and pragmatically, for an employee to come forward?