Retaliation in the Workplace: How to Treat Employees Who Flag Problems

By Stephen M. Paskoff

The chief aim of corporate compliance is to prevent, detect and correct problems before they lead to the stiff penalties the law imposes when the public is harmed, careers are ruined and the impact of illegal acts lingers.

In fact, the Federal Sentencing Guidelines reward firms whose compliance programs take defined steps to find out and fix problems before they cause damage. Newly proposed amendments will provide additional incentives to firms that act aggressively to maintain legal and ethical workplaces.

As I’ve written elsewhere, we would have been better off if we’d been able to stop the practices before they occurred rather than addressing their resulting chaos. Instead, they brought us financial chicanery, systemic disaster, recalls of dangerous pharmaceuticals and automotive products, and oil spewing through the Gulf.

A reluctance to “blow the whistle”

There are laws in place to prevent retaliation. Organizations also devote massive resources to hotlines, compliance training, corporate policies and structures. Yet these efforts have often been less than successful in effectively encouraging individuals to come forward before bad practices turn into outright catastrophes. If they had been successful, retaliation claims would not be on the rise and the whole issue of compliance would be a stagnant rather than growing problem.

Recently, when I was interviewed for a New York Times article on the practical issues that employees face when they bring ethical issues forward, I offered several tips for identifying signals to discover illegal or unethical conduct.

It’s usually easy for us to recognize the obvious signs of a potentially serious violation. What’s really hard is to know what, if anything, to do about it. This is not because of a lack of systems, processes, or policies. Instead, it is the lack of organizational credibility: people usually know where to go to complain but often don’t believe their organization really wants to know about problems.

It doesn’t help that we call these people who step forward and identify issues “whistleblowers.” The word calls to mind a traffic cop blowing a whistle, stopping you from jaywalking.

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Over the years, I’ve noticed most people across many industries are reluctant to “blow the whistle” because they don’t want to be labeled as troublemakers. Many believe that they would be better off just focusing on what they can accomplish rather than problems that no one wants to think about, much less fix. Others rightly feel that their organizations would prefer to rid themselves of whistleblowers rather than the problems they uncover.

5 tips to help employees who flag problems

Organizations that really want to root out problems need to turn around this perception. Fair warning – this is not easy, especially if the organization’s culture includes examples of individuals who were ignored, ostracized or released for speaking up.

Here are five tips to help you create a welcoming environment for people who step forward and speak up about problems.

  • This is a leadership issue first and a compliance issue second. Hot lines and complaint systems are part of a commitment to find out about issues but not the commitment itself.
  • Leaders have to regularly talk about and demonstrate their willingness to hear about problems, no matter how serious. If leaders don’t deliver the message themselves, it won’t take hold in the organization. Remember, the natural instinct we all have is to keep quiet rather than to speak up, especially in a challenging economy where jobs are scarce, the risk of job loss is high, and employees are already wary about speaking up.
  • Employees and leaders need to understand why finding and fixing problems benefits everyone. If they don’t see how revealing problems will benefit them, their organization or the public, there’s less motivation for them to do so and more motivation for leaders to ignore or stifle complaints. Leaders should make it clear that they won’t tolerate actions that prevent them from finding out about problems. They must also clearly state, “If we find out about problems, it helps our organization.” The following are concrete examples of what discovering and resolving problems can do for your organization:
    • Reduce costs
    • Protect its reputation
    • Minimize burdens of later fixes
    • Demonstrate a commitment to values
    • Prove the organization is committed to operating legally
  • Leaders at all levels must understand retaliation and the behavioral steps which encourage employees to talk to them about all problems. This involves not only what they say when they are told about issues, but how they react in terms of body language, tone of voice and follow through in responding to concerns. This is a specific behavioral model that, in years of practice, we have learned helps employees know that their organization and direct managers are serious about uncovering issues.
  • Finally, let’s get rid of the term “whistleblowers” with all of the negative associations it produces. How about calling people who come forward organizational guardians, protectors or friends. Surely we can think of something more welcoming in tone than company cops, stoolies or tattlers

This excerpt from Simplicity Rules: 12 Thoughts For the 2012 Workplace is published by TLNT with the express permission of Employment Learning Innovations, Inc. [ELI, Inc.]Simplicity Rules is the copyrighted material of ELI, Inc. All rights reserved. No portions may be extracted, copied or duplicated without the express written permission of an officer of ELI, Inc..

Stephen M. Paskoff, Esq., is the founder, president and CEO of ELI®, an Atlanta-based training company that teaches professional workplace conduct, helping clients translate their values into behaviors, increase employee contribution, build respectful and inclusive cultures, and reduce legal and ethical risk. Contact him at