Encouraging employees to blow the whistle is the last thing most managers want to do, fearing it will lead to problems. But three academics who have extensively studied it say research shows it can benefit organizations by saving money and reputation, boosting employee satisfaction and preventing outrages that invite government regulation.
In the Journal of Business Ethics, Marcia Miceli of Georgetown University, Janet Near of Indiana University's Kelley School of Business and Terry Morehead Dworkin of Seattle University offer the following steps managers can take to ensure whistle-blowing occurs when necessary at their organization:
Create a tough anti-retaliation policy that permits disciplining or dismissing employees who take action against whistle-blowers.
Search for and select employees who are likely to blow the whistle when they see something wrong. That means being on the lookout for individuals who are more critical of other people. Often, of course, those are people who organizations pass over or spurn because they can be hard to get along with or please. Whistle-blowers are also the type of people who take action to influence the environment around them.
Communicate codes of ethics and anti-retaliation policies, starting with any handbooks handed out to new employees at orientation. Michael Stores Inc. recently added an anti-retaliation policy to its corporate code of conduct, which middle and upper managers must sign every year, and offers some reassurance to whistle-blowers that they won't suffer. Tell employees where to express concerns and what to expect.
Training and development
It's fine to write a high-sounding code of ethics, but you need to follow that up by conducting serious training for managers and employees alike on how to handle concerns without retaliation. Cardinal Building Maintenance Inc., a commercial janitorial service, requires supervisors and managers to attend an annual, five-hour class about workplace bias and harassment, with one-fourth of the course on avoiding taking retaliation in sensitive situations.
Explain what's wrong
Orient and train employees about what the organization considers wrongful, and what to do if wrongdoing is observed.
Support these efforts with channels for reporting wrongdoing. Develop a culture in which dialogue and feedback are regular practices, demonstrating it's safe to raise concerns, but go beyond that to designate an individual whom whistle-blowers can approach with concerns or a hotline.
Consider financial incentives for reporting concerns, such as a percentage of savings recovered as a result of internal whistle-blowing (when embezzlement is caught, for example), a salary increase in a merit system, a one-time cash bonus, or some other financial reward. The academics stress that the only company they are aware that does this is the consulting firm BDO Seidman.
Instead of shooting the messenger, as some managers are inclined, investigate to determine if the complaint has merit. After a specific incident has been reported and wrongdoing remedied, consider publishing a report of actual cases, minus identifying characteristics, to illustrate the action the organization takes to rectify problems and punish wrongdoers.