Everyone On Board: Encouraging Employee Whistle-Blowing (IO Psychology)

Topic(s): culture, ethics
Publication: Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes (May 2013)
Article: Encouraging Employees to Report Unethical Conduct Internally: It Takes a Village
Authors: David M. Mayer, Samir Nurmohamed, Linda Klebe Treviño, Debra L. Shapiro, & Marshall Schminke
Reviewed by: Thaddeus Rada

With the prevalence of corporate scandals seemingly increasing in recent years, organizations are concerned with preventing unethical behavior like never before. One way some organizations may combat unethical behavior is through employee whistle-blowing programs, in which they encourage employees who witness unethical behavior to report it internally. In this way, organizations hope to find out about problematic behavior quickly, before the issue grows and becomes more damaging and difficult to deal with. However, whistle-blowing programs have an inherent drawback: they rely on employees to take the initiative to report unethical behavior, which many employees may be reluctant to do, especially if the unethical behavior involves their manager or another powerful figure.

A recent study by David Mayer and his colleagues investigated some of the conditions that might facilitate (or suppress) employee whistle-blowing behavior. Across two field studies and a lab experiment, the authors found that both supervisors and coworkers played key roles in determining if an employee would report unethical behavior. Specifically, ethical leadership on the part of an employee’s supervisor seemed to make it more likely that the employee would engage in whistle-blowing when necessary; however, supervisors’ ethical leadership had a much smaller impact on employee whistle-blowing when an employee’s coworkers behaved unethically. Put another way, it appears that simply having an ethical boss isn’t enough to ensure whistle-blowing; the behavior of an employee’s coworkers also seems to play an important role in this process.

While research will undoubtedly continue to uncover new insights on whistle-blowing behavior, this study has important implications for practice. Specifically, consultants might advise organizations that it is important to encourage ethical behavior at all levels of the organization. If an employee’s supervisor, or coworkers, behave unethically, it reduces the likelihood that an employee will engage in whistle-blowing. Employees need to feel that unethical behavior is discouraged at all levels of the organization, thus minimizing the risk that they take by reporting such behavior.