"Kill the messenger" - how companies respond to whistleblowers and anonymous tips

Whistleblower Whistleblower Company

A commentary by WB Risk Prevention Systems.

Dealing with people when confronted with massive wrongdoing in a private or business environment is always associated with emotions. The first, spontaneous reaction to (anonymous) whistleblower reports is often repression, disappointment or shock.  

Extreme examples on a private level are information from third parties about the infidelity of a spouse or the drug use of one's own child. In the professional environment, it can be information about embezzlement by employees, corruption, harassment at the workplace or other misconduct within the workforce. 

In particular, if a) the information via such behavior comes from outside, from whistleblowers, i.e. anonymous whistleblowers, and b) the misconduct clearly deviates from the company's self-image and self-image, the first reaction is often disbelief or rejection. The motto is "That can't happen here" or "We're one of the good guys. 

The Kill the Messenger Phenomenon

The problems are talked down or it is assumed that the bearer of the bad news has misunderstood something or even has bad intentions. If it is also a service provider, the impression can even arise that the provider wants to generate sales "on the back of the victims/company. These are all reasons not to address the actual problem, but to "cold" the bearer of the bad news - the so-called "Kill the Messenger phenomenon". 

There are plenty of well-known examples, such as the Catholic Church's handling of allegations of abuse: If the misconduct is diametrically opposed to one's own understanding of values, it is particularly difficult to deal with it. The cause of the misconduct must lie with other people, environmental influences or factors, but in no case with oneself. In psychology, this is referred to as "external causal attribution". 

Let's stay with the examples of sexual assault (in companies): As we reported a few weeks ago, there is currently an increase in the number of companies reporting an increase in this problem after employees return from the home officeIn the process, we were able to experience for ourselves that only in rare cases did victim protection actually have top priority. Instead, there was a denial of the problem. 

Note: A current Article in Handelsblatt addresses the criticism of compliance procedures that protect offenders better than victims. 

Defensiveness as (self-)protection against whistleblowers

If information comes to the attention of those responsible that raises allegations of corruption or sexual assault within the workforce, the appropriate response should of course be taken. But what is the 'right' reaction? How should one behave and what measures should one take to investigate these allegations? 

First of all, there is usually consternation - toward the victims, but also due to the fact that the company, which was believed to be healthy, has problems. However, it is more irritating when the person responsible reacts defensively to such accusations. Because instead of neutrality and attitude, this not only shows a lack of empathy, especially if the possible incidents have negative effects on the physical and mental health of the employees. 

Instead of dealing with the actual accusations, the cries for help from those affected and the (obvious) grievances, the information or the sources are not only questioned but dismissed. Fearing damage to their reputation, attention from the press, revelation of the full extent or perhaps even the loss of their own jobs, those responsible cease to show empathy and responsibility. 

There are measures that can be taken to resolve such allegations without causing an uproar or involving the entire company and its environment.  

The problem of closed systems

A major challenge is the closed, almost idealized systems that prevail in some companies. Accusations of corruption or sexual assault within the workforce do not fit into the image that the company has built up internally and externally. 

But how can everything be good in a company if several employees independently experience the opposite? 

As an outsider, you hardly have a chance to break through this wall of idealization. As an employee, you are not always taken seriously or referred to internal departments that cannot evaluate the situation neutrally.  

We are certain that such a system cannot survive in the long term. If alarming information is not taken seriously enough, regardless of whether it is provided internally or externally, the trust of employees will be lost. The reputation that one wants to protect by thwarting the information providers will be damaged in the long run.  

Any reaction to allegations against the company is therefore "right" as long as those responsible deal with them, choose appropriate communication towards those affected and employees:inside, and also work for measures to avoid future developments.  

You have questions or have observed critical developments in your company yourself?

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