Would you want your child to be a whistle-blower?

By Mike Cook
Management Developer

“A little integrity is better than any career.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson, American essayist (1803-1882) 

We’d probably all like to think that those classes we have our employees attend on business ethics truly reflect our senior leadership’s commitment to ethics and doing business in an ethical, not just legal fashion.

Here’s some facts from a 2011 National Business Ethics Survey by the Ethics Resource Center in Washington, D.C.

There are more than 138 million Americans in the workforce over the age of 18.

Forty-five percent of U.S. workers, which is roughly 62 million employed Americans, observed misconduct in the workplace.

Of those who witnessed wrongdoing, 65 percent, or nearly 41 million workers, reported it.

And of those who spoke up, 22 percent said they experienced some kind of retaliation.

That’s almost 9 million Americans.

So you tell me, how well do you think we are doing?

I imagine we’d all like to think of ourselves as people who would live and raise our children with more focus on our integrity than our self-interest and these classes in corporate ethics shouldn’t even be necessary—we’d like to think!

A few years back my youngest son was employed in a popular high-end restaurant in Rochester, N.Y.

He worked part-time busing tables for a while and eventually worked up to waiting tables. He made good money and really enjoyed the people he worked with except for the two owners who seemed to him to be somewhat arbitrary in their approach to employees, but his contact with the owners was limited so he was able to enjoy most of his experience.

After he had been there nearly two years he called one day and said he had a problem and could use my advice.

A former female employee of the restaurant had filed suit against one of the owners claiming that she had been subjected to sexual harassment and wrongfully dismissed. My son had received a subpoena and was being asked to testify on behalf of the plaintiff.

We talked for a while, and it became apparent to me that this was one of those times in life where you got to see whether you were really serious about what you professed to be the values you live by. (I have come to believe that you truly don’t know what your values are until you are put to the test of living them when there is something to lose.)
I asked my son whether he had witnessed the alleged behavior.

According to the aggrieved former employee, the father of one of the owners was the guilty party and his behavior was tolerated by the son. My own son said he had witnessed the alleged behavior, and in his view it was inappropriate. My son went on to say that he thought if he testified to the truth as he saw it, his employer would not be at all forgiving.

He wanted to know if I was prepared to back him up for a short while financially while he found a new situation.

As it turned out, he was going to be leaving town within a few months to attend school in a different part of the state, so we were already thinking about new employment opportunities for him elsewhere. This fact, however, didn’t make the situation any easier to resolve, since my son still had immediate living expenses and also had many friends at the restaurant that he wanted to be able to stay in touch with. He suspected he would be blackballed by the employer.

Neither of us has ever regretted him appearing in court and testifying to what he had witnessed.

As he suspected, he instantly became a pariah in his workplace. His employer referred to him as a “rat” in front of other employees and while he was not immediately dismissed he was demoted from waiting tables to the lesser-paying busing post. Then his hours were cut to the point it was clear he was no longer welcome in the restaurant.

So what did he learn? That life can in fact be mean and not match up to the way you think things should go.

In retrospect, he said he was not really surprised by the way he was treated. His suspicion all along was that the employer held the employees as expendable and these events sadly proved his instinct. I would have preferred that he was wrong, and the employer had taken responsibility for the actions that had occurred.

I’d like to think that someone running a highly profitable and popular business would operate in an upstanding manner and be a model for his employees. I’ve always wanted to think that, but I have learned to be surprised when it actually happens.This is not kids’ stuff we’re talking about.

I also wish I didn’t find stories like this one appearing on a regular basis as it did as recently as last week.

I imagine we’d all like to think of ourselves as people who would live and raise our children with more focus on our integrity than our self-interest. In real life it turns out that no ideal is that easy to live by. That’s probably why they call them ideals.

Each of your direct employees is someone’s child. Do you hope they were raised to be whistle-blowers?

Mike Cook lives in Anacortes, Wash. His columns appear on BBJToday.com every other Tuesday. He also publishes a weekly blog at www.heartofengagement.com.

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