Q: I accepted a respectable position with a company I expected to be reputable and intelligently managed. While management seemed to display both those characteristics, as I came to work more closely with certain managers, I discovered hierarchy flaws and less transparency than I liked. I heard about behaviors that were less than acceptable, but I didn't know whether I should say something. I don't want to be seen as a complainer, but I don't know where to draw the line on what I can say or do.
A: Most people will not speak out because doing so takes courage. Generally, employees operate within a range of comfort and security regarding their freedom and decision-making ability at work, and sometimes, they sacrifice their freedom out of fear of management retaliation. This type of fear is what has prompted whistleblower advocacy groups and formal whistleblower organizations.
According to the Legal Information Institute, a whistleblower is "an employee who alleges wrongdoing by his or her employer of the sort that violates public law or tends to injure a considerable number of people. The employer can be public or private."
The Whistleblower Protection Act of 1989 is a law that protects federal government employees who "report the possible existence of an activity constituting a violation of law, rules, or regulations, or mismanagement, gross waste of funds, abuse of authority or a substantial and specific danger to public health and safety." But the crime or wrongdoing could also be in the form of fraud, deceiving employees, corruption or any other act which misleads people. The Whistleblowers Protection Enhancement Act of 2012 adds more protections.
In addition to reporting illegal activity, the term "whistleblower" is often used when an employee reports or informally comments on an executive's or manager's behavior as unprofessional and unacceptable. Regardless of the term one uses, speaking out in a company takes courage.
In "Choosing Courage: The Everyday Guide to Being Brave at Work," Jim Detert, a professor at the University of Virginia's Darden Graduate School of Business Administration, presents many examples from his decades of research on workplace courage, and explains why "fearless organizations" can make the world a better place. "It's no easy feat to step in when a boss makes rude or offensive comments or shows blatant favoritism," states Detert.
One such example was when a district manager entered the restaurant screaming at Hugh, the new restaurant manager, for visibly dirty sections. Hugh bravely asked the district manager to continue the conversation in the back, where he responded "sternly but respectfully ... 'Don't ever talk to me in that demeaning tone and fashion. I can explain the situation, but don't ever talk to me like that again.'" Hugh's response took courage, and his courage stemmed from his value of integrity. The district manager later apologized.
Detert explains, "Speaking the truth to power can involve defending or shielding those who've done nothing wrong but are nonetheless being mistreated." Sometimes, an employee has to report the incident to upper management, which may be the only way to advocate change. Detert says this is done too infrequently because it's often more difficult than confronting a person you know. One example involves a boss asking his employee to lie and take the blame for an accident he had. She refused, but when her boss continued to be aggressive, she felt she had to report the incident because she "had more integrity than that." She was not going to be part of his cover-up. Ambrose Redmoon says, "Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the judgment that something else is more important than fear."
One's values and goals are the foundation of courage. The critical question to ask yourself is: Are you clear about who you are, or what you want to become, and how you want to be remembered when you're gone? That foundation creates the compass that will guide your decisions. In a world where values are absent or in question, and honesty and transparency must be tested, companies can play a major role in returning integrity to employees by setting an example. Sometimes it will take a whistleblower to initiate change for the better, but, gradually, society must return to practicing intentional goodness.
Email career and life coach: Lindsey@LindseyNovak.com with your workplace problems and issues. Ms. Novak responds to all emails. For more information, visit www.lindseynovak.com, and for past columns, see https://www.creators.com/features/at-work-lindsey-novak.