FEAR OF REPRISAL AND THE PSYCHOLOGY OF WHISTLEBLOWING - Canadian Government Executive
CommunicationLeadershipThe Interview
May 8, 2017

FEAR OF REPRISAL AND THE PSYCHOLOGY OF WHISTLEBLOWING

An Interview with Joe Friday and Craig Dowden

The Office of the Public Sector Integrity Commissioner (PSIC) has just released The Sound of Silence: Whistleblowing and the Fear of Reprisal, a white paper based on new research. Patrice Dutil, the Editor of Canadian Government Executive, exchanged with Joe Friday, the Commissioner of Public Sector Integrity of Canada and Craig Dowden, the author of the report, to discuss the issue.

Mr. Friday practiced law in the private sector before starting his career in the Public Service in 1992 as Legal Counsel to the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs. He ascended the rungs of the public service through a variety of positions in the Department of Justice. He was appointed Commissioner in 2015. Craig Dowden (Ph.D.) is the President of Craig Dowden and Associates, a firm specializing in supporting leadership and organizational excellence by putting science into practice. He has worked with thirty different departments and agencies on building a positive and respectful work environment.

 

Q:  “Blowing the Whistle” is not an easy thing to do. Why is that?

CD: If I may add to that, a fascinating finding from the research is that people are torn between the notions of fairness and loyalty. They want to do the right thing and treat people fairly and not allow for an unjust action to stand. Simultaneously, they are struck by the loyalty and dedication they feel to their group. They don’t want to be disloyal and cause trouble for people they work with and likely care about. This creates tremendous tension within an individual, which is why doing the right thing may not be as simple as it sounds.

JF: Yes, it is hard to do. I think it is a combination of both human nature and organizational culture, and one seems to reinforce the other. Recognizing the value of coming forward when you believe something is wrong is contradicted or counter-acted by the fear of the risks of doing so. Fear of reprisal, plus concern that no one will take action when you do raise your concerns, combine to make for a very powerful disincentive. This speaks to the importance of a change in thinking about what we value in the workplace, and also about ensuring that our actions reflect our messages about the importance of coming forward.

JF: Building on Craig’s point, feelings about loyalty can be complex. They can very often play a role in someone’s decision to come forward or to remain silent. These feelings are linked to one’s identity as a person, as a professional and as a public servant. The Preamble of our Act actually says that the whistleblowing regime seeks to strike a balance between the duty of loyalty to an employer and the right to freedom of expression. Apart from those important legal concepts, loyalty comes into play on a more direct personal level and involves people’s sense of belonging and having meaningful and productive personal relationships with colleagues and friends. We all want to feel that we are valued as ethical, honest and professional individuals, and that these character traits are recognized as important, and in fact that they shared by our colleagues. These feelings are not inconsistent with disclosing wrongdoing; in fact they are entirely consistent with “doing the right thing.”

 

Q:  Is this fear something that is particular to the federal public service or particularly prevalent there?

JF: I am also certain that this fear goes beyond the borders of our public service. This is an issue that I discuss with my provincial and territorial counterparts, and it is certainly the topic of ongoing discussion and research at the international level. All the same, this research paper confirms that, in the federal public sector, senior managers and leaders have an important role to play in this regard. People turn to their senior managers for the kind of leadership, the kind of behaviour that will serve as a model for them and for others. It is this kind of leadership that will result in the cultural change that we recognize is needed.

CD: There’s little doubt that this is a global issue. It affects organizations across all sectors and sizes. In my interviews with CEOs of Canadian-based organizations, I constantly hear about the difficulty of fostering an environment where people feel comfortable speaking up. This is critical for a number of reasons. Honest feedback can be essential for mitigating risks that are on the horizon. If this information is buried or misrepresented, there can be tremendous costs involved. This type of open dialogue is also key for innovation. Ideas can and do come from all parts of the organization. Making sure these perspectives are heard provides a competitive advantage. Last, but certainly not least, it is crucial for ensuring a healthy and productive work environment where people can be free to be at their best.

 

Q:What can be done to “normalize” whistleblowing and address the fear of reprisal?

CD: I agree and one of the most important elements is to explain “why” it’s important. If leaders or the organization do not spend time talking about the why, people may be cynical as to their true motives or feel this is something that is mandated but not truly believed in. This can undermine engagement and trust. Leaders may feel the reasons are obvious, but if this message is not explicitly communicated, their employees will come to their own conclusions

.JF: Understanding and awareness are absolutely essential. Communication has to take place, and it has to continue. Information has to be clear, accurate, accessible and consistent. Uncertainty about what is acceptable behaviour, as well as fear of reprisal, can be addressed to a significant degree, I believe, if people are given information and encouraged to ask questions, raise concerns and share views. People need information about their options, about processes, and about the support mechanisms in place, so that they can make fully informed decisions about coming forward. But they also need to know that their considered views and input are important to their managers and colleagues in getting their work done every day. The more we talk about all issues affecting the work and the workplace, and the more we talk about the value of coming forward, the more whistleblowing becomes a normal and accepted part of our culture in the public service.

When faced with an information vacuum, people will fill it and unfortunately, it is generally not with a good news story.

 

Q:We inevitably circle back to issues of culture. How do you effect a cultural change that would lessen this fear?

JF: Changing the way individuals think and shifting organizational culture is a slow process. It requires a collective and continuing commitment to push forward. It is bigger than one office, one project, one law or one person. And when we are talking about issues that go to fundamental questions of fear and uncertainty, and issues of confidence and trust, I think the challenge is even greater. People are looking for reassurance that something will be done to address a problem when they identify it, and that nothing bad will happen to them for having identified it in the first place. This involves not only my small office, but the entire federal public sector. Everyone has to pull in the same direction at the same time, and actions have to be validated at various levels throughout the system, including at the most senior levels of leadership and authority. The conversation has to be micro and macro at the same time. But I do believe that senior leaders have a particular role to play in leading by example, by taking positive action to solicit ideas and by being seen to actively encourage discussion, and also to speak out themselves when they believe something is wrong. Respectful debate and disagreement are part of a healthy workplace; silence, fear and conflict are not.

CD: In the white paper, I discuss a powerful study that looked at how to create a culture where people feel more comfortable speaking up. The strongest predictor was leaders being proactive in both asking for feedback and acting on feedback from their employees. Interestingly, the weakest predictor was having formal reporting mechanisms available. So, leaders must recognize that having a system in place is not sufficient to build this type of environment. They play a critical role.

Despite the importance of strong leadership, there’s also compelling data to suggest this type of cultural change truly takes a village. According to a series of studies, when both supervisors and co-workers are deemed ethical, this sends a consistent message to employees that it is expected and safe to report wrongdoing. However, if one of these groups is not seen as ethical, this dampens the willingness to speak up, even when a supervisor is supportive. Another fascinating finding was that when both parties were considered ethical, employees felt less fear of reprisal. This makes a lot of sense. As humans, we look to our environment for cues on how to act. If our boss or our colleagues shun this type of dialogue, we will be less inclined to engage. This doesn’t lessen the onus on leaders. It just means we should, as the expression goes, “be the change you want to see in the world.”

 

About this author

Patrice Dutil

Patrice Dutil is the Editor of Canadian Government Executive. He is a Professor in the Department of Politics and Public Administration at Ryerson University in Toronto. He has worked as a government policy advisor, a non-profit organization executive, a television producer and was the founder, and editor for five years, of The Literary Review of Canada. His upcoming publications include a book on the administrative practices of Canadian prime ministers Macdonald, Laurier and Borden, and a study of the 1917 election in Canada.

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