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Want a clean company? Don’t burn the whistleblowers

This column is part of Globe Careers' Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about leadership and management. Follow us at @Globe_Careers. Find all Leadership Lab stories at tgam.ca/leadershiplab

Every year, organizations deal with ethical crises that were entirely avoidable. Ask yourself, how many people must have known about the factors causing the BP oil spill long before it happened? How many people must have known something was wrong at Penn State before child abuse allegations against former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky surfaced? How many General Motors employees knew about the ignition switch problem until it could no longer be hidden? Why do organizations learn about their own misdeeds in the media, even though dozens of their own employees know of the problems?

The answer is simple. People in organizations fear retaliation for reporting wrongdoing. Survey research conducted by the Council of Ethical Organizations since 1986 shows that at least a third of the employees of most organizations fear retaliation for reporting wrongdoing. The percentage of employees fearing retaliation is even higher when it is fear of reporting wrongdoing by a manager or executive. Fear of retaliation keeps the lid on problems – until they become public.

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Most large organizations have hotlines that are supposed to let employees anonymously report alleged wrongdoing without fear of retaliation. The theory is that if no one knows who is blowing the whistle, you take retaliation off the table. But that is not how it works. In many cases, no one will listen to an employee who doesn't provide his or her name. And if the employee provides enough information to allow a problem to be investigated, the investigation often uncovers their identity. The employee is then left wide open to retaliation.

Many organizations try to address this by having a policy that prohibits retaliation against reporting employees. In almost every case, the policy states that the organization prohibits retaliation against an employee who makes a "good faith" report of wrongdoing. The company lawyers like to add "good faith" to protect the company against employees who make malicious reports of wrongdoing. But all this really does is tell employees that they may or may not be protected if they report wrongdoing, depending on how some unnamed official in the company determines the "good faith" of their report.

Whenever I am asked to review a company's ethics or compliance program, one of the first questions I ask is whether anyone in the company has ever been disciplined for retaliating against an employee who reports wrongdoing.

In more than 30 years of asking this question, I have found about a half-dozen instances of someone being disciplined for retaliating against employees who have come forward. This is absurd, since retaliation is a common and normal human response when someone breaches the line of command. If you ask a room full of employees if they know of anyone who has been retaliated against for reporting wrongdoing, quite a number of hands go up. Why don't organizations enforce their non-retaliation policies?

A common argument comes from human resources, which believes it is too hard to "prove" an allegation of retaliation. There is no question that it is a challenge. In fact, it is the same challenge we faced in the early days of trying to enforce a policy prohibiting sexual harassment, which was often considered too hard to prove. If you really want to enforce a non-retaliation policy, it can be done. For example, a verbal threat or change in employment conditions after a person has made a report are presumptive indicators of retaliation.

In these days of social media and instant communication, organizations still are not very good at communicating with their employees. When an organization does or is about to do something wrong, there are usually a number of employees who know about it.

It is a tragedy to step into the middle of an ethics crisis when knowledge exists in your organization that could prevent it. But you will only succeed in preventing a crisis if employees do not fear retaliation for speaking up.

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The only way to make this happen is to discipline those who engage in retaliation. The goal is to create a culture in which speaking up about wrongdoing is recognized as a duty and retaliation is not tolerated. When it comes to avoiding ethics crises, retaliation is the enemy.

Mark Pastin is an ethics consultant and the chief executive officer of the Council of Ethical Organizations, an Alexandria, Va.,-based non-profit organization that promotes ethics in business and government. He's also the author of Make an Ethical Difference: Tools for Better Action.

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