A quick review of the evening news will often reveal stories of someone in an organization either doing wrong or blowing the whistle on someone else who did wrong. No organization is immune from having its reputation questioned when an employee or manager is caught violating ethical or legal standards, and the fallout can be damaging in many ways.
We read almost daily about deliberate misdeeds, illegal behaviors, or unethical acts. Many of these behaviors have come to light because a current or former employee felt that pursuing corrective actions via internal avenues would be ineffective. Yet many people also remain silent out of fear of retaliation. When the wrongdoing is ultimately revealed, this act is referred to as “whistleblowing.”
In certain cases, whistleblowing can be profitable. In a recent medical billing case in Kentucky, a physician was awarded $283,412.90 as part of a settlement.1 Some elements of this case and its settlement fell under the whistleblower provisions of the federal False Claims Act, which allows private citizens with knowledge of fraud to bring civil actions on behalf of the United States, and to share in any recovery.1
In other organizations (businesses, nonprofits, and government, small or large) opportunities exist daily for people to choose whether to behave in a legal and ethical manner. Those who choose not to usually have a financial need, an opportunity (access to cash, data, or other company assets), and a rationalization for their behavior.
It is common to wonder why people make unethical or illegal choices, rather than adhere to the laws, regulations, and rules of common decency in their working lives. Another question, however, may be equally as relevant: Why do those who have knowledge of such acts remain silent? A recent National Business Ethics Survey found that about one-third of workers who witness misconduct do not report it.2 So, what is an employer to do?
High retaliation rates will dampen reporting and increase the likelihood that wrong behavior remains undiscovered. As such, there are tactical responses to the abovementioned question, keeping in mind that good tactics can never compensate for a bad strategy. The real challenge is to create a culture of ethical decision-making and behavior. Some suggestions to achieve this are presented below, and should only be implemented with the support of your upper management team. They include the following:
- Manifest the organization’s position on ethical behavior through all available forms of communication; written standards are imperative. Meetings at all levels serve to maintain an aura of transparency, and can set an example for ethical expectations.
- Train everyone on standards and relevant topics for the organization’s sphere of operations, and provide a resource for employees to turn to, such as a specific executive or human resources leader.
- Promulgate a policy and position for everyone to sign. Include a process for internally expressing concerns about suspected or witnessed questionable behavior. An ethics or “whistleblower” hotline can be especially valuable. All policies should receive legal review, address the company’s position and standards clearly, provide examples of prohibited behavior and for reporting possible violations, and clearly prohibit retaliation against anyone who reports possible violations.
- Include in staff performance appraisals and job descriptions a section on level of compliance with company policies. Employee surveys can also support a compliance effort.
- Clarify sanctions for all violators.
Ethical behavior necessarily deals with the vagaries of human life, and it is important to remain flexible enough to account for variety and unexpected possibilities in the working world. Providing clear expectations, support, and processes to achieve an ethical culture is the real challenge for any organization seeking to create and sustain an engaged workforce. Executives, owners, and human resources professionals are especially suited to lead such efforts.
- The United States Attorney’s Office, Western District of Kentucky. Owners of Elizabethtown Hematology Oncology, PLC agree to pay over $3.7 million to settle false billings to government health care programs. www.justice.gov/usao/kyw/news/2014/20140603-03.html. Accessed November 10, 2014.
- Ethics Resource Center. National business ethics survey of the US workforce. www.ethics.org/downloads/2013NBESFinalWeb.pdf. Accessed November 6, 2014.