Whistleblowers often give up before employers get the message

No sooner had I sent out my March 2013 newsletter than a very interesting article appeared in the FT talking about some recent research into whistleblowing. Time and again, we see high profile cases where whistleblowers were ignored with expensive, even tragic, consequences. Mid Staffordshire Hospital, HBOS, BP’s Texas City Oil Refinery. And each time the same questions come up: “How could it happen? Why didn’t people listen?”

There are a number of reasons why whistleblowers are ignored. The research reported in the FT offered a new insight. The researchers found that, on average, employers need to hear news of problems three times before they are prepared to act.

The trouble is that employees are typically only prepared to blow the whistle once or twice before they give up.

Both of these patterns are understandable. From an employer’s point of view, even if they are not blinded by “can’t happen here” biases, or incentives to turn a blind eye, dealing with an alarm is going to be a big hassle. You can always argue that the prudent course is to wait for more evidence.

From an employee’s point of view, sticking your head above the parapet is a huge risk to your livelihood – would you push it if you didn’t think you were being listened to?

So leaders need to be aware of this dynamic and account for it when bad news comes their way. Some organizational issues just sort themselves out, and wise managers are alert to the danger of wading in prematurely. But when it comes to allegations of bullying, sharp practice, negligence or illegality, I’ve never heard a client say: “I wish I’d left that issue to fester a bit longer before dealing with it.”