Sometimes the Whistleblower is Right

There is a negative connotation surrounding the term whistleblower. Traditionally, when someone blows the whistle and exposes the negative actions of a leader or the deficiencies of a process/product/service, some people in the organization are quick to make the assumption that the whistleblower is either a nut job or a severely disgruntled employee. Perhaps they were passed over for a promotion, or a plum assignment was given to another member of the team. The goal of some leaders is to sweep the information provided by the whistleblower under the carpet as quickly as possible. In some cases, leaders go out of their way to ruin the whistleblower’s credibility. In the extreme cases, they go out of their way to see that the whistleblower is fired. Once they are gone, these leaders assume that the whistleblower is forever silenced.

Leaders who make the above assumptions and/or take punitive actions against whistleblowers are making a big mistake. Great leaders who truly believe that their organizations and leaders are doing the right thing, welcome whistleblowers who are willing to speak out.

If the organization and leaders are as good as you think they are, then a proper investigation is only going to show that there is a lack of merit in the whistleblower’s acquisitions.

But, sometimes the whistleblower is going to be right. In this case there are two challenges for leaders. First, leaders do not really know when the whistleblower is right and when they are not. The second challenge for leaders is that the problem remains when people do not feel comfortable speaking up, or when the whistleblowers comments have been discredited and not fully investigated. Usually when the problem rears its ugly head again, the consequences are severe.

The most recent and most publicized example that has had devastating impacts on both leaders and thousands of others is the Jerry Sandusky scandal at Penn State. The whistleblower, Mike McQueary, informed Joe Paterno, the then head coach of Penn State’s football program, but important actions were not taken. In Penn State’s football program, the leaders were so concerned with protecting the team’s image and their own careers, the police did not get involved until 2009 when a student contacted officials at another school.

I recently facilitated a meeting where one team member told another team member that they were concerned about regulatory compliance in their area of the business. The leader who was having his area questioned responded, “We are the experts in this area. You are not! And, the examples you have shared are not major compliance violations.” What is most sad, is I believe the leader who was bringing up the compliance risks was trying to help the other leader and the organization be even more effective.

As a great leader, what can you do when someone blows the whistle? The following 5 tips will help ensure you are never at the helm of an organizational scandal:

  1. Welcome feedback. Welcome the fact that people are willing to come forward with their version of the truth. Not everyone is a disgruntled employee. I believe that the majority of people who work for you have the desire to do the right thing.
  2. Investigate the complaint as if it were true. If you go in with the goal of proving that the whistleblower is a nut job or a disgruntled employee, you are most likely not going to uncover the truth. If you are as good as you think you are, and your organization is a good as you think it is, you will welcome a full investigation.
  3. Utilize a third party to investigate the claim. When it comes to whistleblower complaints, it’s most likely going to have some impact on people in the organization. This means that investigations are going to have strong emotions attached. Many times it is difficult for even the HR leaders to remain neutral. Hire a third party who only has a job to do and is not emotionally involved.
  4. Do the right thing and take action. As I write this, it’s hard for me to imagine the late, great Joe Paterno see his 50 year career go down in a demise of disgust because he did not do the right thing. His decision should have been really easy: when someone is physically and/or sexually abusive, especially to children, you need to get the authorities involved. If Paterno did report the whistleblower’s information to the University President and no action was taken, Paterno had an obligation to get the University’s Police Department involved. Where there is smoke, there is fire. At the very least, Paterno should have fired Sandusky and never allowed him on the campus again. This is such an important lesson. It takes a lifetime to build a great reputation for character and doing the right thing. It only takes one bad decision to destroy a whole career. In this case, bad decisions almost caused the NCAA to issue the “death penalty” and shut down the University’s football program.
  5. Be friendly, be caring–just don’t be friends with the people you work with. Joe Paterno and Jerry Sandusky were good friends for over thirty years. When the whistle was blown by assistant coach Mike McQeary, Paterno’s decision was to focus on protecting Sandusky. He made the wrong decision.

As difficult as it is to watch this scandal play out, we can learn a lot from this case as leaders, and as people. Loyalty is important to many organizations, but it should never outweigh the necessity of doing what is right.

Following these five steps will help you build an organization that encourages people to step forward when they see something that is not right.

PS: If anyone wants a 900 lb bronze statue of Joe Paterno, keep your eyes on e-bay. After what has been uncovered in the Penn State scandal, there is no way that statute will remain on campus.

(1) Comment

  1. Great blog post — you can’t help but wonder what a strong tone at the top or a well-used Ombudsman program would have done for Penn State.

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