Can You Hear the Whistle?

Michael Pilato, creator of the Penn State mural “Inspiration,” made a change to his painting Saturday, removing the halo over former football coach Joe Paterno. This visual fall from glory was preceded by the July 12 release of a damning, 267-page investigative report on the on-going child abuse scandal, compiled by former FBI director Louis Freeh.

Presented with the stark facts of the case, commentator after commentator has asked how years and years of abuse at a state institution occurred without action to stop it.

The magnitude and repulsive nature of the offenses are so severe; it’s hard to imagine. But wrong doing does occur. And if it does for the horrific, what is the prognosis for waste, fraud or less repugnant lapses?

The Freeh report concluded that Penn State officials engaged in a cover up because they were afraid of “bad publicity.” Officials knew they were vulnerable but did it anyway.

According to Chris Gavagan, an expert on sexual abuse in sports:

More often than not, a literal or figurative cost benefit analysis is done, an institution tabulates the price of potential lawsuits, and the decision is made to do all that is within their power to make the problem go away without reporting it to the police.” Gavagan continues, “If there were a fire on campus, there would have been no debate as to “how are we going to handle this?”

Some Penn State staff did not report the abuse for fear of losing their jobs. Whistleblower laws should have protected these employees but the prognosis is not good for whistleblowers. A stunning number are subjected to retaliation. Even when an employee does prevail it’s often after substantial personal and financial damage has occurred.

In 1992 and 2010 surveys of federal workers, approximately one-third of the individuals who felt they had been identified as a source of a report of wrongdoing also perceived either threats or acts of reprisal, or both. Yet, fear of reprisal is NOT the number one reason people fail to report wrong doing. The number one reason is employees do not believe anything will be done. Multiple surveys show a lack of faith in management to act.

U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board 2011 survey data indicate those reporting wrongdoing do not place the personal consequences first. Saving lives is more important to respondents than whether they will experience punishment or a reward, and whether the agency will act on a report of wrongdoing matters more than any fear of an unpleasant consequence for the employee making the report.

With the 24-hour media cycle and the popular anti-government narrative, even when management does the right thing the agency will still be subject to negative media as the story unfolds. A good scandal sells papers (or internet ads) and calling out an agency head is fun sport for select elected officials.

Tom Fox of the Partnership for Public Service, notes:

“Federal workers are the perfect punching bag in an election year. The scandals offer an opportunity for some in Congress to suggest that wrongdoing exposed in the past few weeks is standard government practice.”

Federal, state, local and school public agencies employ over 21 million people. There will be some bad apples and their scandalous acts will make headlines. But these cases are not representative of the nation’s government employees. In fact, they are far from the norm.

What Can Be Done?

Georgetown Professor Marcia Miceli, author of several books on whistleblowing, offers ideas for managers seeking to root out those few engaged in wrong doing, including selecting a visible, highly trusted arbiter.

Other practical steps suggested by Miceli and Fox include:

  1. Provide clear reporting processes and evidence requirements, in writing, with input from all levels.
  2. Act in a timely way.
  3. When not confidential, communicate what has occurred, actions taken and why.
  4. Ensure whistleblowers are viewed as moral heroes (not tattletales) and rewarded when appropriate.
  5. Make clear the rights and shared ethical responsibilities of organizational members.
  6. Acknowledge bad news created by scandals and encourage employees to raise questions in staff meetings and appropriate settings. Rest assured they are already talking about it. It is better for the discussion to be based on facts and addressed candidly.
  7. Look for the good that comes from the spotlight. In some cases the status quo does not work well. This may be an opportunity for needed change.
  8. Focus on supervisors and managers to support them in responding constructively. When staff replacement is needed move forward as quickly as practicable.
  9. Keep your eye on the mission. Remind staff that their work is still important and the buzz surrounding scandal should not distract from the real services they provide.
  10. Be an ethics role model.

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