The culture of both private and public sector organizations are undergoing change. Whether this is an evolution or revolution depends on the organization. Is your organization already devoted to strong and healthy business ethics? Alternately, is your organization one where employees have to think carefully about the ethics involved in every decision that they make and whether to ignore them?
All sectors of the economy, public and private, national or international have had large scandals. As a result, ethics in the workplace has become a hot topic. Enron, in the United States and the Sponsorship Scandal in Canada are the two scandals that have had the greatest impact on us.
As a result of Enron, the United States enacted Sarbanes-Oxley. This is strong legislation where CEOs of companies can be judged legally and criminally liable for wrongdoing in their organization. Whether or not they knew about the wrongdoing it remains their responsibility. It also is intended to protect whistleblowers. While this legislation is focused on the private sector of the US, it is also applicable to all Canadian companies that are subsidiaries of US firms or are listed on the US stock exchange. The result is that these Canadian employees are protected by US law.
This is not the case in Canada. Our country is soft on white collar crime and has no comparable law. A white collar crime is treated essentially as a misdemeanor. Although the Canadian Sponsorship Scandal resulted in the Federal Accountability Act, it applies to federal public servants only. Furthermore, unlike the United States, there is no criminal wrongdoing attached to the consequences if discovered.
To examine the dilemma of an ordinary employee, let us use a real situation. At work you notice that another employee is stealing from the petty cash. The problem is that the thief is your boss. What should you do? To come to a decision, this problem needs to be looked at from a hierarchy of ethical beliefs.
First there are your own personal ethics. What do you believe in? Are you religious? Do you believe stealing is wrong and what should you do about it?
Next there are your professional ethics. Many people belong to professional associations. Without exception, these organizations have codes of conduct that are clear. Should you take action in accordance with these codes?
Third in the hierarchy is the vision statement and/or code of ethics of the business that that you work for – public or private sector. All of them reinforce the ideal that employees are to have the highest ethical standards. Should you honour the stated expectations of your company? Is this your duty as an employee?
The answer for the above three ethical standards would appear to be an obvious “yes” and that the stealing should be reported. So, why does wrongdoing still go unreported? To understand, you have to look at two major pressures and influences and possible consequences on a person at work.
First, most people work in small groups within large organizations. Peer pressure is enormous and others may already know what is going on. The more people that know, the more diffused the responsibility of any one person. Why should you take action when no one else will? Why should you take responsibility and stand out from the crowd? What will your colleagues think and/or do?
That is the whistleblower’s lament, “Why should you take the risk?” When you report a problem; often no one else will back you up. They may fear for their jobs. They may hope that as long as they don’t say anything, the problem will go away. They decide not to be involved. It is a case of “Shoot the Messenger”.
Second, there is the boss and my example was deliberately chosen to illustrate this problem. Many employees who try to report wrongdoing to their boss end up in abusive situations and suffer reprisals. There is often no place to turn to.
The world is changing. You can’t blow the whistle if you can’t get the problem out in the open. Modern communications such as the internet, factbook and twitter have opened new doors for whistleblowing and reporting wrongdoing. Organizations have not yet come to grips with this fact. Whistleblowing is increasing and becoming respectable.
I spend considerable time consulting and helping firms understand whistleblowing: what it is, the dynamics, the culture, mechanisms and solutions. Organizations and senior executives have a choice – they can solve problems or cover them up.
More and more organizations are setting up mechanisms to help employees maintain their integrity and expose wrongdoing before the problems become unmanageable or large enough to cause damage.
The amount of whistleblowing that can or will result in an organization is directly related to management’s positive view of whistleblowing. Good management means fewer problems are reported with the converse being equally true.
Going back to my original example, wouldn’t it be best if the employee was able to report stealing (wrongdoing) without fearing reprisals from the boss? There is a long way to go but organizations working on solutions show that they take pride in their employees. The result is the employees take pride working for these companies.