Whistleblowers, Disgruntled Employees and You

The recent revelations by Edward Snowden, now infamous for being the whistleblower in the secret NSA data-mining operations, have sparked a firestorm of debate in news outlets around the world. Is Snowden a hero, a patriot, a traitor or just a young man who thought he was doing the right thing? More importantly: Are there management practices that better address the behavior of those labeled as disgruntled employees as well as reduce the need for whistleblowing actions?

In the current economic situation where an ethical misstep or mismanagement can topple even the best-intended companies, management must strive to not only be open to feedback, but to encourage, seek it out, receive it positively and act upon it accordingly.

Consider the following examples: the construction worker who tries to get his foreman to stop unsafe work practices; the accountant who knows the books are being improperly juggled; the assistant who sees her boss padding his expense account. If whistleblowers, even those on a grand scale, can be targets for revenge, then what chance do these employees have of being heard and fairly treated? Often the whistleblower is shunned, demoted, fired or labeled as a troublemaker — and most certainly tagged as disgruntled.

Like dysfunctional families, many business cultures suppress any negative feedback, even in the most trivial matters. Too frequently, workers who are called “disgruntled” or “negative” by management are people who don’t know how to tell the company that something bad is going to happen if it continues certain practices — at least in ways that will be heard. Often they’ve tried but have been told by management, “That’s your job. Just do it and don’t ask questions.” Yet they believe a disaster is waiting to happen.

Because of the multiple possibilities for contention, in addition to all of the written policies, company mission statements and employee relations channels, management from the top down should recognize and correct the behaviors that have employees enter into or stay in the disgruntled stage that can lead to the whistleblowing stage:

  • Dismissive comments, labeling, reprimanding, punishing or firing employees for simply expressing concerns. Many companies justify reasons for firing, but when they are stripped away, the real issue may be the ways in which concerns are raised — annoying, in some sense intimidating or just seen as inappropriate behavior.
  • Infrequent opportunity to hear from individuals and groups about what is working well and what needs to change, and failing to make such review a part of how you work.
  • Creating a multilayered and intimidating process for submitting concerns.
  • Ignoring the concerns if and when the employee is diligent and determined enough to complete the submission demands.

Companies should facilitate the movement of information so that employees see their concerns being taken seriously, investigated quickly, and resolved when found valid. Managers at every level should take on the role of coach, not boss — the type of coach who listens to the concern, addresses it at his or her own level if possible, or takes it to someone who can — then follows through and communicates the status with the employee who expressed it.

No one should be punished for honestly exposing safety issues, questionable practices or dishonest actions at any level. Punishing or ignoring might work for a while, but when those strategies are no longer effective, physical or financial disasters ensue.

Of course, no single person can oversee the behavior of everyone in an organization. That’s why all employees should be encouraged to be vigilant regarding improper, unfair or unsafe practices. All managers should become coaches, judged by the success of their employees, including how well those employees engage in ethical discussions, involve others, share concerns and demonstrate their concern for the well-being of others.

The principles of behavior analysis can help to address and change the ways in which people show up at work, creating individuals who are clear and direct about what they experience while receiving legitimate support for changes they are making to address concerns actively and in real time.

In the current economic situation where an ethical misstep can topple the best-intended companies, management must strive to not only be open to feedback, but to encourage, seek it out, receive it positively and act upon it accordingly. They need to celebrate and recognize small steps that indicate cooperation and commitment from their employees, making the culture one of inclusion, even for divergent points of view. What corporate leaders should keep in mind is that they don’t have to worry as much about whistleblowers if they are doing things ethically in the first place.

Darnell Lattal is president and CEO of Aubrey Daniels International. She can be reached at editor@talentmgt.com.