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Enable your whistleblowers

Consequences of turning a blind eye to wrongdoing can be severe – just ask Penn State

By Todd Humber

Last fall, I focused my blog on the importance of building a culture that supports and encourages whistleblowing in the wake of the tragic child sex abuse scandal at Penn State University.

I got a lot of response to that blog — some commentators were pleasantly surprised the editor of an HR publication would take an approving stance of whistleblowers. The kind words were appreciated, but the sentiment seemed misguided.

I didn’t — and still don’t — understand why people would expect HR professionals to quash and belittle whistleblowers. And I can’t fathom why any individual, at any organization in any sector, wouldn’t want to build a culture supportive of whistleblowing.

Maybe I’m just naïve. Maybe it’s because I’m a journalist, and whistleblowers — as Jack Welch recently wrote in the pages of Canadian HR Reporter while discussing whistleblowers and Walmart’s Mexican troubles — have a noble reputation in the media.

Perhaps it’s because I’m not exposed to the litany of whistleblower-type complaints organizations, particularly larges ones, have to deal with — there may be a lot of vengeful people crying wolf that harden organizations to false accusations.

But, in Aesop’s fable, the wolf eventually showed up. In the real world, that wolf will inevitably arrive at the organization’s door too.

The short-term gain of punishing whistleblowers and sweeping it all under the carpet is easily outstripped by the long-term damage of letting unethical or illegal activity go unchecked.

Just ask Penn State. The consequences it is facing are staggering.

The university in Happy Valley, Pa., used to be known for one thing — football. Sure, it had a rich academic tradition. But “JoePa” — as coach Joe Paterno was known to the Nittany Lion faithful — was the heart and soul of the university.

If anyone was ever put on a pedestal, it was JoePa. But his once-proud legacy is in ruins, and the 900-pound statue erected in tribute to Paterno is gone, carted away and put in storage by a shamed institution.

Paterno, who passed away in January, was the winningest coach in U.S. college football history. Not anymore — the NCAA, the body that oversees college athletics, has stripped him of every victory after 1998. He’s now number 12 on that list.

Paterno didn’t abuse the children — that was former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky’s evil. Sandusky was convicted of 45 of the 48 counts he faced involving 10 children. But an independent investigation held four top university officials, including Paterno, responsible for failing to stop him.

Penn State isn’t known for football anymore. Decades of building a hard-earned reputation as a top academic school and a football powerhouse have been erased. Now the name of the school invokes something heinous because, on the scale of wrongdoing, hurting children is at the very top.

The university is paying the price for ignoring the signs, for not embracing the whistleblowers who did speak up and for not instituting a culture where it was safe to do so. Some janitors apparently witnessed Sandusky abusing children in 2000 and didn’t report it because they feared taking on someone that powerful on the football squad would lead to their dismissal — that’s how much sway the football program had at Penn State. That’s inexcusable.

Football is big money in the United States. According to CNN, a recent study by the university said the football program had a US$161.5 million impact on Pennsylvania in 2009. The football team made a profit of US$53.2 million in 2010. It felt like it was too big to fail. Too many Davids, unfortunately, wanted no part of this Goliath.

But it did fail. And the consequences are thus: A US$60 million fine. Stripping away 14 seasons of football victories. The football team has been banned from the post-season for four years, and will lose 20 football scholarships a year for four seasons. Its reputation is in tatters and will take decades to rebuild.

Whistleblowing is not a dirty word — but the acts it prevents or puts an end to most certainly are. No organization, regardless of size, can afford not to encourage it. Every incident needs to be investigated thoroughly. Everyone needs to know it’s safe to speak up.

If your organization isn’t embracing a culture that supports the reporting of wrongdoing, then it has willingly exposed an Achilles heel. It’s only a matter of when, not if, it will feel the consequences.

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

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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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