Shooting the messenger has a long and inglorious history. Today’s messengers of ill-tidings are often whistle blowers–people who break out of their system to express their concerns. Even when these complaints are legitimate leaders tend to be highly ambivalent towards such actions.
Famously, fifteenth century King Boabdil on learning his city of Alhama had fallen was terrified it meant the end of his rule. So he decided to make it not true. He threw the letters in the fire and killed the messenger who had delivered them.
An increasing number of employees are witnessing violations of company rules and are feeling pressure not to say anything. According to the 2011 National Business Ethics Survey nearly half of workers witnessed a violation of the law or their company’s ethics policy.
But while 65 percent of workers who saw a violation reported it — an all-time high — retaliation against whistle blowers rose to a high as well. More than a fifth of employees who reported a violation said they experienced some kind of retaliation. 1
Mostly leaders do seem to prefer to demonise whistle blowers. They brand them as disloyal, and in the most recent high profile case of Snowden, for those in power he is simply a dreadful traitor, not a hero.
A sure test of a leader’s commitment though to running a responsible organisation is therefore their response to whistle blowers. In too many cases the response is entirely predictable–shoot the messenger.
When Shell attempted to sink a redundant oil platform in the North Sea, in the 1990’s rather than pay the cost of decommissioning it, many staff reportedly joined in the protests. At first, the leadership took a dim view of the staff objections. But the issue would not go away and after decisive action from Greenpeace the management finally backed down.
A care home, a company that runs prisons, a hospital trust and the state security services may not seem to have a large amount in common. Yet in the UK all have recently been dealing with the harsh reality that one or more of their employees felt their leaders were turning a blind eye to bad behaviour. In each case unhappy employees felt compelled to take their concerns to a wider audience, rather than the leadership.
In the case of Colchester General hospital managers apparently exerted pressure to falsify cancer patient waiting times and hide other revealing data. Some staff chose to contact the police. As Care Quality Commissioner Sir Mike Richards stated bluntly:
We have found that the concerns raised by staff in relation to changes made to people’s cancer pathways were not appropriately managed or investigated by senior staff of the trust” 2
Similarly, at the Hillcroft Nursing home near Lancaster, carers are on trial for ill-treating residents and wilful neglect. Despite complaints of whistle blowers, the jury was told, the leadership covered up the abuse and it continued.
At G4S the global security firm, new boss Ashley Amanza has publicly accused the previous management of taking actions covering up bad behaviour rather than responding to staff concerns. The result says Amanza is that the management team “caused us to take actions that have undermined some of our core values.” 3
A typical reaction of leaders to those who blow the whistle is to complain: if only the person had not exposed the organisation’s dirty washing, and used “existing channels” things would surely have been sorted out quietly behind the scenes.
This carries little conviction as a way of responding to employees’ ethical concerns.
While it’s true some whistle blower are simply disaffected trouble makers, many are genuinely ethically engaged–that is, they care enough about the organisation to speak up when they see things going wrong. Some recognition of this is taking place in the financial sphere, where the UK government, as already happens in the US, is planning to reward those who report a crime with a cut of the money they gain back for the tax man.
The vast compliance industry is supposedly making it easier for employees to speak up. For example with independently run hot lines where the disaffected or ethically concerned employee can raise concerns. Yet these too can suffer from a credibility gap. In one leading company two independent hotlines failed to receive a single call despite the care with which they were established.
“Don’t shoot the messenger and learn to love your whistle blower,” seems unlikely to inspire many leaders or managers. Yet it could be the single most sensible message they could use to get their ethical message across with conviction.
1 J. Berman, Company Retaliation Against Whistleblowers Rises To All-Time High, Survey Finds, Huffington Post 01. 06. 12
2 Trust reported over cancer data, 5th November 2013 in National News © Press Association 2013
3. S. Goodley, G4S Debacles down to undermining of firm’s values, says new boss, The Guardian.com,