study: Emotions an overlooked key to whistle-blowing

One fantasy I’ve had is to gather up and study prominent whistle-blowers in corporate culture—to quantify and qualify the personal traits that effected their whistleblowing: who were they in kindergarten; how have they socialized; what will they die for; how do they talk to a janitor—interview the janitors; how did deals break with them previously—to learn if any can be actively identified and proactively targeted in managerial talent. Of course my “study” would subject non-whistle-blowers from those same settings to the same analysis. I hardly know what I’d find, but suspect I’d find something—possibly something belief-affirming, and likely, as studies go, surprising.

What I know is that there are people who get up and leave the auditorium (or remain)—without first checking that someone else has. There are people who call the cops and physically intervene instead of just watching the assault, or throw over the bridge like the 50 other bystanders. There are people who stop shopping at the chain. There are those who start the standing ovation. I want this personality matrix and force of person represented on the board of a company in which I’m invested. I want them in management—people who will resign over something; vote for something; and who can be moved to write a candid email—as did Sherron Watkins—that doesn’t win them friends.

Thankfully, there are those willing to be completely bothered with trying to both know the proper course for a firm, and take it. I expect parties like Ira Millstein already know which traits are important and how they get indicated.

According to a study by University of Illinois researchers, whistleblowing is attendant with breach of an emotion and personal-identity based threshold in the whistleblower. Knowledge of ethical lapses or wrongdoing alone appears largely insufficient to trigger the behavior.

But college of business Professor Ruth V. Aguilera of the University of Illinois says that most corporate policies overlook the critical role of both drivers, calling most firms’ ethics policies window dressing aimed at compliance with federal law.

“It’s very difficult to encourage people to blow the whistle if you ignore the role of emotions and personal identity, which most company policies do at this point.”

The article, slated for publication in the Business Ethics Quarterly, states that nearly 90 percent of ethics guidelines are common among Fortune 500 firms, despite those firms’ unique circumstances and culture.

A second researcher stated:

“When I interviewed whistle-blowers, almost all of them cried during the interview.”…”The survey showed that people mostly blow the whistle because they are absolutely angry over something that they feel is unfair or unjust.”

This is consistent with the observation in a previous post about decision making. Professor Aguilera stated:

“Employers need to explain that wrongdoing can cause an Enron-type scandal that could sink the company, or eat into the revenue that covers payroll and raises.”

Intriguing about the article is how flatly the status of current corporate ethics policies appears to lie in light of recent corporate history, and what this suggests for the likelihood of greater and more proactive ethics policies tailored to individual firms. I.e., it’s hardly clear what would be more mobilizing on the ethics policy front than widespread corporate debacle itself. The saddest answer of course is, your own corporate debacle.


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