Forefront by TSMP: How To Be An Effective Workplace Whistleblower

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Forefront by TSMP

31 May 2023

How To Be An Effective Workplace Whistleblower

Reporting or tackling discrimination or harassment at work can be tricky – here’s how to get HR or senior management to take you seriously

By Stefanie Yuen Thio

Cover photo credit: Wildpixel / iStock

A young woman – let’s call her Anita – experienced a horror story at work. Her high flying team leader had been sexually harassing her. He had made several inappropriate comments on her appearance and once, after a few drinks, asked her to have sex. She declined and made a report to the company’s human resource (HR) department, who promised to look into it. Anita had her employment terminated shortly thereafter, as part of what was billed an internal restructuring. She believes she lost her job because of her complaint but cannot prove it. She now battles anxiety and depression from the trauma while having to look for a new job.

Arnold thinks he’s being racially discriminated against in the work place. Arnold is Chinese and leads a small team. His new manager, a woman of a different ethnicity, makes comments which Arnold believes come from racial bias. She never complains about behaviour of staff who are of the same race as herself, such as when they consistently fail to turn on their cameras during internal virtual meetings, but called out Arnold the one time he did the same, even though he was one of 30 participants and was not even speaking. The manager makes derogatory remarks about “you people”, which Arnold thinks refers to the company’s Chinese employees. She also consistently promotes and gives more positive work reviews to individuals of her race, disadvantaging Chinese members of the team.

When Arnold brought this up to HR, they shrugged it off due to the lack of hard evidence. He baulks at the thought of bringing it up to the big boss because the manager is well-regarded and relied upon. In a game of “it’s her or me”, Arnold knows he would lose, and doesn’t want to give up an otherwise good job he has dedicated a decade to. He is resigned to putting up with the discriminatory behaviour.

Both Anita and Arnold (names and some details have been changed to protect their identities) shared their stories with me, and asked me what I – as a senior corporate leader – would advise them to do. To my regret, I didn’t have a good solution for them.

Sure, the most direct answer would be to hire a lawyer, take the matter to HR and if reasonable and appropriate steps are not taken, report the situation to the Manpower Ministry or the Tripartite Alliance for Fair Employment Practices, an agency that can start an investigation into the company. Or they could even take the bad actor or the company to court. But these actions would potentially pose personal risk to both Anita and Arnold.

Anita has no tangible proof that her boss made a pass at her. He could say she misheard or misunderstood his words, which were not recorded or witnessed by third parties. An apology is likely the best outcome she could hope for. It would not get her her job back. Worse, if word were to get out to their tight knit industry, it could jeopardise her chances of landing another job.

Arnold’s situation also suffers from lack of evidence. If challenged, his manager could simply say that he had misunderstood her or the situation. The consistent promotion of same-race candidates would be explained on the basis of their being better performers, an assessment that is hard to challenge because it involves an element of subjectivity. Arnold would torpedo his relationship with his manager and worse, his big boss.

Pre-emptive positioning

In Harvard Business Review article “Cultivating Everyday Courage”, Professor of business management, James R Detert, says that “most acts of courage don’t come from whistleblowers or organisational martyrs. Instead, they come from respected insiders at all levels who take action — be it campaigning for a risky strategic move, pushing to change an unfair policy, or speaking out against unethical behaviour — because they believe it’s the right thing to do”.

Fighting discrimination and harassment is more effective when you have a strong base and have established personal credibility. That requires bolstering your position before any offensive act occurs. Building networks and accumulating goodwill are key. There are, to my mind, two elements to this.

First, personal goodwill. An employee’s position is buttressed by a network of good personal and working relationships. You need allyship in the office, which requires trust. If you proactively invest in your co-workers by training, mentoring or counselling them, exerting influence on their behalf or becoming the go-to problem-solver, they are more likely to believe and support you.

Professional goodwill and internal standing are the other element. If you are known as someone who excels at your work and is invested in the company and its mission, senior management is more likely to take what you say at face value. That professional credibility is especially important in a whistleblowing situation where “he said she said” applies.

Building up this goodwill is not as simple as doing quality work. Active contribution to projects that are important to the company, tangibly helping it to build business and reputation, and speaking up in constructive ways all contribute to the narrative of a good performer who is professionally aligned with the organisation.

This may not come naturally to every individual. But Detert also points out that people who successfully exhibit workplace courage rely on “attitudes and behaviours that can be learned, rather than on innate characteristics”.

Personal and professional goodwill are the safety net for when developments in the work place thrust you onto a dangerous tightrope.

Framing the issue

Once the problem erupts, how do you take action? This is where it becomes important to frame the issue when whistleblowing.

I would tell Anita not to paint herself as a victim, and counsel Arnold against making the issue about “her against me”. Drawing battle lines with you on one side forces people to choose camps.

In Anita’s case, I would put the facts (in writing) to HR and highlight the coincidental timing of the termination notice. The written report would contain details like the time, date and place where events took place or offensive words were spoken, and as far as possible, the exact words used. While her boss will want to paint a picture of an unfortunate phrasing of words in a moment of tipsy indiscretion, her written record of the inappropriate conduct leading up to that event would provide more concrete context.

For Arnold, I would frame the issue to align with the company’s or the boss’s interests. He could start by acknowledging the organisation’s track record of work place equality and inform his boss that the manager’s actions are creating the impression that some decisions are racially-biased, which the manager may not even be aware of. This would force senior leadership – without being the target of the complaint – to consider the impact on team morale and effectiveness, how the manager’s behaviour is out of step with company ethos, and whether condoning such behaviour would negatively impact the business’s reputation among stakeholders, especially with workplace discrimination laws coming into force next year.

Timing the Whistleblowing

Given that Arnold’s is an ongoing problem, I would advise raising the issue when senior management is most likely to be open. For example, during the company’s regular diversity and inclusivity training sessions, or in the context of a wider public discourse about workplace equality. Sowing seeds, even (or perhaps, especially) of discord, works best when the ground is soft.

Of course this assumes that the organisation has a functioning and independent HR department and that the bad actor is not the owner. Where the business owner is the offender, the employee would have to consider if they would be open to a gentle nudge: for example, they might not be aware that they are operating under an unconscious bias. If not, it might be best to look for a job elsewhere, on your own time, and not when circumstances force your hand.

The bottom line

A smart whistleblower doesn’t pit himself against the company; instead, the whistleblowing report should be seen as an opportunity for management to defuse a ticking time bomb. Ultimately most organisations want to be fair, because a work place where employees are well treated and happy encourages retention and incentivises good performance. And that’s good for the bottom line.