Whistles: To blow or not to blow? It’s a question of ethics

By Kevin Taylor,

Whistleblowers are certainly making headline news around the world at the moment with not one, but apparently now two, anonymous American whistleblowers accusing the holder of the highest office in the land of colluding with a foreign power for his own personal political gain.

This particular act of whistleblowing has directly led to a move by US Democrats to impeach the President and potentially have him removed from office. In terms of the consequences of whistleblowing, I doubt the bar could be set any higher.

But whistleblowing can actually be quite a complex area. I’m reminded of a story told by my university lecturer about one American whistleblower financially rewarded for his own negligence and irresponsible behaviour.

The man concerned was responsible for safety inspections on a parts line at a factory.

Because he was paid on a productivity basis, he chose to skimp on the tests, and even pass some parts without testing. After a while he decided to report the company for letting him get away with his own unethical behaviour. The company was heavily fined, but the badly behaving employee received a whistleblower reward.

In my experience as the past chair, and also as a member of, the CIPR’s Professional Practices Committee, none of the anonymous cases that we see has ever involved a whistleblower and that in itself is quite surprising. But perhaps I should first briefly explain how the CIPR process works.

The Institute takes a church and state separation of powers approach to its disciplinary process. The CIPR – via its Board, Council and Standing Committees – sets the rules, but the cases are dealt with at arms-length by an independent Regulatory Consultant who acts as a neutral guide through the process to both the person raising the complaint and to the CIPR member accused of bad behaviour.

The Regulatory Consultant also looks to see if the two parties can come to any agreement – especially as the cases invariably involve fees charged or not paid.

If no agreement is reached, the evidence and the response are heard and judged by a panel that deliberately excludes any current serving member of the CIPR Board or Council.

The CIPR looks to maintain confidentiality throughout this process so that any member accused and cleared of acting unethically can carry on their business without the stain of a public accusation. The Professional Practices Committee oversees the process and appoints the Regulatory Consultant and the members of the professional standards panel, but as far as the complaints are concerned, they are simply reported to the committee by the consultant as case numbers. The description of the case excludes the names of all the parties involved.

Ethical Quandary?

In all my time on the committee, I can’t recall a complaint where a member acted as whistleblower against his or her own organisation. Which in turn begs the question whether not being a whistleblower is also potentially unethical.

Imagine being a manager within a consultancy or organisation and discovering that one your directors is running an unethical campaign that breaches the CIPR’s code of professional conduct.

Should you raise a professional practices case with the Institute because the director is a CIPR member? If the director is not an individual member of the CIPR but the consultancy holds PRCA membership, do you report them to that organisation?

The issue for the manager is that being aware that unethical behaviour is taking place and not reporting it, is in itself also a breach of the CIPR code.

You could effectively be the subject of a professional practice complaint for not ‘blowing the whistle’. Of course, if the director is not a member of the Institute and the consultancy does not belong to the PRCA you might struggle to know how to proceed. But the confidential complaints hotline would be able to provide some advice regarding other ways to expose the unethical practice.

I’d like to believe that the lack of PR whistleblowing is a sign that all is healthy and well within the world of our members and the professional PR they practice. In the main, I believe that to be the case. But I do also wonder whether there is a lack of awareness of the process for reporting unethical behaviour, and the fact that – initially at least – the process and advice is confidential.

Of course, reporting your boss for unethical behaviour might be a nuclear option for your career in the short term, but do you want to work for an organisation that behaves that way?

Raising your concerns internally first might be an option, but in the long run being prepared to stand-up to condemn unethical behaviour and champion professional practice will be good for your profile, your prospects and your own peace of mind.

Image courtesy of flickr user Kate Ter Haar via CC2.0.

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