Whistleblowers or Lamplighters?

Snitch! Tattletale! Squealer! Aren’t these amongst the most loaded words from our childhood, words having terrible connotations and associations of being ostracized, negatively judged and being a bad friend?


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I recently came across a small group of 13-year-old boys who got into trouble with their parents because another friend stole something (a cigar of all things) from a convenience store while they were waiting outside. They did not know he was going to do it and admonished him when he told them.

Later in the day, while the boys were still together, the cigar fell out of the boy’s pocket, in front of other friends and parents. The boy who stole it fabricated a story that he found the cigar on the street and the other boys went along with it. The truth wasn’t revealed until a few weeks later, quite by accident.

The boys, all good kids, lied to their parents when the incident first happened, in order to protect their friend. When, subsequently asked why they lied to their parents, the basic answer was “I didn’t want to be a snitch and get my friend in trouble.”

Children and adolescents transition through developmental stages. Interestingly, one of those stages is that of making decisions. Scientific studies have shown that the frontal cortex of the brain, which is responsible for rational decision- making, is in a developmental state until the mid-twenties.

So one can say it’s understandable that young people, even into their twenties, make questionable decisions. Then, as a person matures and their ethical, moral and societal fibers become more well formed, it’s logical to think their decisions will change to encompass a larger, more global view.

They don’t. Consider this: in a survey conducted last year by PricewaterhouseCoopers, 75 percent of polled people observed an unethical act in the workplace and did nothing about it. They did not speak to the employee in question, they did not report it…they did nothing.

And it’s not just taking a pen, or a pad of post-its; there are a lot of big ticket items involved.

The cost of fraud in the U.S. alone, is $660 billion annually! Over $100 billion annually in healthcare… over $12 billion in retail… more than $10 billion lost annually to fraud in non-profits! This can’t be ignored, not only for ethical reasons, but also for practical ones.

When retail stores are robbed, the public pays higher prices for merchandise. The $100 billion in healthcare fraud becomes a significant factor in the alarming increase in annual premiums.

And, unfortunately, unethical acts in the workplace, and their costs, are more than just fraud. There’s embezzlement, misconduct, unethical behavior, lying, falsification of records, harassment, discrimination and drug and alcohol abuse.

And 75 percent of all polled people saw something and did nothing. These are our friends, neighbors, fellow religious worshippers, people whom, for the most part, we’d say are decent people. Why don’t they, or more appropriately we, do something?

The complexities of our moral decisions and processes are well articulated in many books, but for this article I want to highlight that many people don’t report these unethical acts for the simple reason they don’t feel safe in doing so and most important, because they still feel it’s wrong to do so.

It could feel wrong if the person committing the unethical act is your peer, friend or worse, your boss. It could feel unsafe if there are not confidential and anonymous systems to report an unethical act (surveys have shown that 73 percent of employees would report unethical behavior using an anonymous web site or telephone hotline).

I believe the deeper, more fundamental issue is we don’t feel safe in reporting an unethical act because the majority of us are still afraid of being labeled and judged as snitches, tattletales and squealers. And if you have a fear, you make it a belief: if it’s a belief, then you have to justify it. So when the circumstance arises where someone else in fact does report something, in order to keep yourself right, you make the other person wrong – you make him or her a snitch, squealer and tattletale.

While the frontal cortex might be fully developed for decision-making, the emotional charge of incidents or impressions that happened when we were young, even through our second decade, stays with us. The emotional charge of “don’t be a snitch” is extremely impactful from our younger years, and then is constantly reinforced, e.g., “mind your own business,” or “keep your nose out of where it doesn’t belong,” etc.

And it’s wrong. Consider the tremendous bravery it takes to see something unethical or seriously wrong in the workplace and do something about it. If the incident involves a peer, how will the incident reporter be perceived by that person and their co-workers? Probably as a snitch who turned in a friend or colleague.

If the incident involves management or senior level executives, it requires more bravery, for now your job is on the line.

In either case, the incident reporter has to be 110 percent certain, has to be willing to put it on the line, has to be willing to be ostracized, judged and even retaliated against, just because they are trying to do the right thing. It takes an act of bravery, morale strength and even heroism, to do the right thing.

Many people who have performed heroic actions have said they aren’t special – they’re just ordinary people who did something extraordinary. That means any one of us can show the way.

One of the great films of the 70’s was ‘Serpico.’ Starring Al Pacino, it was based on the true story of Frank Serpico, a New York City (NYC) police officer who could not stomach the corruption he saw in the police department and tried to blow the whistle. He was an ordinary person who did the extraordinary, at great risk.

For Serpico it wasn’t just being the butt of water cooler comments, he was shot at by fellow cops, set up in drug busts and spat upon by other officers who made protecting their own more important than doing the right thing. Finally, due to his unrelenting efforts, the issues became known and the NYC police department was overhauled. He truly was a hero.

In recent years Serpico has expressed his displeasure with the word “Whistleblowers.” In the spirit with which Paul Revere lit the lamps in the tower, Serpico coined the term “Lamplighters,’” for individuals who are willing to do the right thing, even when confronted with the prospect of great personal loss.

March is National Ethics Awareness Month, so here’s the question: how would you act? Would you be brave enough to say something if you saw an unethical act? If not, would you then condemn the person who did? Would you be part of the water cooler conversation that puts the reporter down (how dare [s]he report our friend?) or would you have the courage to say, “it took guts to do what they did, and it was the right thing to do, even if it is against our friend?”

Most of us don’t have to worry about our physical safety in doing the right thing: we don’t need to be heroes – other than to perhaps our children and ourselves. But we do need to overcome old childhood impressions, overcome fears and light the lamp. By doing so, we set an example, and maybe, just maybe, inspire someone else to do the right thing.

Written by Jacob Blass, President of Ethical Advocate (www.ethadv.com), a Chapel Hill, North Carolina-based organization specializing in anonymous and confidential reporting systems.

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