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Build a culture that supports, encourages whistleblowers

Sad saga at Penn State University underscores fact that, for all organizations, whistleblowing can`t be a dirty word

By Todd Humber

Any organization that doesn't think it should build a culture that supports and encourages whistleblowers — and followup strongly on all accusations — needs to take a long look at what's going on at Penn State University.

The ongoing sexual abuse scandal that toppled legendary football coach Joe Paterno and university president Graham Spanier and forever tarnished the name of a respected institution showcases the ugly downside of not having a culture that embraces whistleblowing. And let's not forget the victims here — children.

The details are gut-wrenching and heartbreaking. But, at Penn State, a long-time assistant football coach — Jerry Sandusky — is accused of molesting young boys. If the details are true, it's a long, sad tale — but it didn't have to be. There appeared to be plenty of alarm bells going off. According to a timeline put together by the New York Daily News, university police were first informed of a problem in 1998 when the mother of a victim filed a complaint. In the fall of 2000, after Sandusky retired, a janitor at the university allegedly witnesses a sexual assault in the showers. The janitor, a temporary employee, didn't report the incident. In 2002, a graduate assistant allegedly witnesses Sandusky sexually assaulting a young boy in the showers at the universty. He doesn't intervene, but reports the incident to Paterno the following morning. What happens next isn't totally clear —  but one thing is abundantly obvious: Appropriate action wasn't taken. Not to presume Sandusky is guilty — that remains to be seen — but there's little doubt the response from the university fell short.

This was and remains a fast-moving story. But we can already learn lessons from this tale.

The first response every HR professional should have to hearing the Penn State saga is to ask themselves, "What mechanisms are in place at my organization to encourage and enable whistleblowing?" In fact, that's the first response every employee, from the front-line to the C-suite, should have. Whistleblowing is not a dirty word. It's not something organizations should fear.

Wrongdoing at any level can sink an entire organization or even the entire economy. The road to the last recession is paved with companies that acted unethically and inappropriately. A little whistleblowing could have gone a long way in preventing (or at least taking some of the edge off) the global economic meltdown.

As part of orientation, every employee should have it drilled into them that they need to report any and all wrongdoing. And that includes temporary employees. How many victims might have been saved if that temporary janitor at Penn State in 2000 had known exactly who to approach? Or knew for a fact that his job wouldn't be jeopardized by going to management or the police to report what he had seen?

Employers also need to act decisively when a complaint is brought up. And that doesn't mean coming down hard on the accuser. That's something one Ontario municipalilty found out recently.

The City of Cornwall was recently fined $15,000 for "slamming the whistleblower efforts" of a worker at a municipally run long-term care facility, according to a report in the Cornwall Standard-Freeholder. The worker wasn't happy with the way the city was handling allegations of abuse at the facility, and pushed managers to report it to the provincial Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care. The worker ended up calling the ministry herself to report the allegations, which brought a rebuke, according to the paper.

After discussions with city officials, the city`s HR manager sent a letter to the worker that read: "Informed by your largely erroneous views with respect to the applicable legislation and seemingly blinded by your zeal to have the employee in question terminated as, (to use your words) 'the only way to protect the residents', you decided to reveal confidential personnel-related information through a complaint to provincial authorities."

The province laid a charge of "doing anything in retaliation for another person making a disclosure to an inspector" against the city.

But the letter from the HR manager sends a chilling message to workers. And not only does it hurt the city`s reputation, it also cost them $15,000. And how likely are employees at the City of Cornwall to report wrongdoing now? It`s been made clear in the local newspaper how management will react. Hopefully, the city will go to pains to let employees know that, in light of this court ruling, whistleblowing is something that will be encouraged and supported.

Whistleblowing can prevent a lot of damage. Sometimes, it`s damage to the bottom line. Sometimes, it`s damage to the organization`s reputation. And sometimes, like at Penn State, the damage is to defenseless individuals.

Todd Humber is the managing editor of Canadian HR Reporter, the national journal of human resource management. He can be reached at todd.humber@thomsonreuters.com. 

Todd Humber

Todd Humber is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Canadian HR Reporter, the national journal of human resource management. Follow him on Twitter @ToddHumber
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