Whistleblowing reveals not just acute misdeeds, but also chronic and longstanding patterns of misconduct. And yet, many leaders wrongly believe the path to consistent, proper conduct is offering special methods to enable and motivate whistleblowing such as hotlines, ombudsmen or incentives. Without these methods, leaders assume employees won’t risk speaking up and crying foul when they observe ethical violations in the workplace.
VitalSmarts’ latest research surveying 926 employees from around the world confirms most leaders are wrong. It found that the primary predictor of corporate rectitude is creating a culture where employees regularly feel both motivated and able to hold people accountable for garden-variety complaints. When they do, the study shows they are six times more likely to blow the whistle on major corporate ethics violations. It is in the interactions regarding small concerns that employees learn the skills and gain the trust in leaders to handle more egregious concerns.
Learning leaders play a vital role in creating cultures of accountability through training and modeling the skills for speaking up to anyone about anything, regardless of the person’s level of authority and the magnitude of the perceived ethical violation.
Unfortunately, the study showed that cultures of accountability are the exception rather than the rule. Instead, cultures of silence are pervasive across corporate America. Specifically, the research found that nearly two-thirds of employees regularly witness minor or major ethical infractions, and yet they blow the whistle on only half of the unethical behavior they observe.
The top three minor ethical violations employees observe are taking credit for someone else’s work, taking extra-long breaks and calling in sick when actually well. A third of respondents reported seeing one of these minor infractions in the last week.
Taking unfair revenge, embezzling significant value and coercing sexual favors are the most common major infractions observed. While most people might think concerns as big as embezzlement or sexual coercion would certainly provoke action, the study suggested that if learning leaders haven’t created a culture where everyone is motivated and able to speak up about small infractions, they are unlikely to speak up about things that are abhorrent.
For example, one survey respondent was an employee at a large hotel and shared that she had a supervisor who sexually harassed her. Prior to this, she had seen numerous episodes of employees fudging time cards or pilfering supplies, but said nothing. Others also said nothing. Likewise, she said nothing about the harassment — until she quit and filed a lawsuit.
So, why do the majority of employees stay mum when witnessing unethical behavior? The top reasons employees gave for not blowing the whistle include:
• It might damage their career.
• It would have made the offender harder to work with.
• They didn’t think they would be taken seriously.
• They weren’t sure how to bring up their concerns.
Interestingly, the research showed that the difference between those who speak up and those who don’t is one of competence, not climate. Those who spoke up had just as much reason to believe the conversation might be career-damaging or could result in repercussions from the other party, and yet they spoke up anyway. These people reported feeling more confident in speaking up because they had practiced on smaller issues and acquired both the skill to do so effectively and the trust that the larger organizational system (bosses, peers, HR, learning leaders, etc.) would support them if they took the risk.
Implications for learning leaders are profound. Low-accountability cultures are fertile ground for major problems. Conversely, when leaders intentionally create a norm in which employees address daily accountability concerns with bosses, peers, direct reports and other departments, the organization wins twice. Not only is performance improved, but the organization inoculates itself against creeping corruption.
But how do people hold a colleague accountable when they observe bad behavior, violations or even crimes? Eight patterns predict success in both small and large conversations. Learning leaders can help create an ethical climate in the workplace by coaching employees on how to effectively speak up about unethical behavior using the following tips.
First, tend to your safety. If raising the issue to the offender directly will cause you harm, seek security, HR or legal assistance. If not, take the following steps.
Gather data. Given that you’re likely to encounter confusion and denial, gather all the data you can to help make your case. The clearer your data, the more likely you are to be persuasive.
Avoid conspiracy. If you have an obligation to report the offense to supervisors or other agencies, do so immediately. If the lapse is offensive but not reportable, confront the individual in a respectful but direct way.
Start by sharing your good intentions. Begin by letting the other person know you have his or her best interest in mind. This shows your purpose is not to question motives or authority, but to deal with a possible problem before it spins out of control.
Share your facts. Lay out the concern using data — strip your explanation of any judgment or accusation. For example, don’t say, “You stole office supplies.” Rather say, “I noticed you placed a ream of copy paper in your briefcase.”
Tentatively share your concerns. As suspicious as the activity may seem or how clear your observations, there might be a reasonable explanation. Use tentative terms and expressions. For example, “I’m not exactly sure of what I saw today, but I was tempted to conclude …”
Get the other person’s point of view. Once you’ve described what you think you saw, ask the offender for his or her perspective. But be careful — you are not inviting his or her view to surrender yours — just to ensure you have all the facts. Listen for information, not excuses.
Take it up a level. Finally, if you can’t work it out to your satisfaction, either take it to your boss (if he or she isn’t the party in question) or take it to HR. You’ve shown your respect by talking directly to the offender and now you’re going to have to involve another party.
Joseph Grenny is author of “Crucial Accountability” and co-founder of VitalSmarts, a corporate training and leadership development company. He can be reached at editor@CLOmedia.com.