Whistleblower: (noun) A person who makes public disclosure of corruption or wrongdoing

Picture the scene. You’ve secured an overseas posting, and you really like the place. Then in the first couple of months you uncover some ‘work practices’ that are less than kosher. Your boss is a difficult guy, not easy to approach. And, now that you are aware of this stuff, you can’t just ignore it. You tentatively mention your concerns to the boss and he dismisses the analysis, effectively telling you to ‘mind your own business’. The boss has a solid track record of performance and has always produced stellar results (head office is thousands of miles away and not really up to speed on what happens locally). What do you do?

Contradictory Forces: I know that this reads like the storyline from a ‘B Movie’, but this is precisely the dilemma I faced a couple of years back. And, to make matters more complex, I was in the middle of an adoption so could not afford to ‘jump ship’ without losing our place in the queue. Most of us grew up with some idea of loyalty – to our mates and to our boss. So, telling tales does not seem like an automatically good way to resolve anything. Perhaps this is something peculiar in the Irish culture. Our Colonial history or the fact that in a small island nation, we tend not to say things which will cause offense. For whatever reason, the option of becoming a ‘whistleblower’ seems particularly unattractive. But, and this is obviously dependant on what you have uncovered, there is a contradictory idea, what Americans label ‘doing the right thing’. Where the sins are ‘mortal’ (in business terms, fraud, physical violence) the call is somewhat easier. Where the allegations are ‘at the margins’ (allegations of sexual harassment, bullying, bribery in line with ‘local norms’), it’s a more nuanced decision.

New York: I weighted up what had to be done and eventually flew to the head office in New York to confront the issue. I came very close to getting fired myself (shooting the messenger is a classic organizational response). But somewhere underneath all the noise, they did listen and sent an internal audit team. 2 months later, one of the senior managers left the company. Now, I’m no hero. I was much more uncertain at the time than is portrayed above. With the benefits of hindsight, I can dissect the individual points into neat chunks. At that time I’d never even heard the term whistleblower and it was going completely against a cultural norm to raise the curtain on someone else’s behaviour. Perhaps I ws guided by the Force, Yoda’s line in Star Wars: “Do or do not. There is no try”.

Dominant Culture: I was reminded of all the above when reading Simon Carswell’s book Anglo Republic – Inside The Bank That Broke Ireland. Jam-packed with dates and details, it’s a really good, but not an easy read. A customer service and speed orientation in Anglo (good things) eventually morphed into a selling/profitability obsession where the normal risk controls in banking were abandoned. But what struck me most forcefully was how difficult it is for individuals to stand up to the cultural norm within an organization. Especially when this is being driven by powerful individuals and where the ‘whistleblower’ has a chunk of mortgage to pay off and kids to put through school.

Personal Grievances: Dermot Rush, a Clinical Psychologist by training and my colleague in Tandem Consulting, believes that many whistleblowers are motivated by a personal grievance, a denied promotion or some other slight. Why? Because there is just so little mileage in pressing the STOP button for ethical reasons alone. Zero upside and so much potential downside.

So, here’s the question. Is there something happening in your organization that is not right? Do you feel strongly enough about this to pull the plug or are you afraid to confront this? What’s holding you back? Will you be a central figure in some future book, exploring ‘where it all went wrong’? Perhaps Edmund Burke the Irish politician and philosopher said it best 300 years ago: “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing”.

Paul Mooney PhD

Tandem Consulting