Increasingly, the response to organisational scandals and business hazards by risk management and compliance offices, as well as by advisers and consultants, has been to advocate for a ‘speak up culture’. All sorts of institutional mechanisms have been developed to enable this sort of internal reporting, from the long-utilised anonymous telephone hotline to online reporting systems and, of course, individual ethics officers who stand ready to hear concerns. And predictably, scholars continue to conduct research on why individuals, despite these mechanisms, too often do not raise their hands when they witness malpractice or ethical infractions.

But is it really any mystery? Thorny dilemmas aside, many of the most egregious ethical breaches involve activities that many employees know are wrong, but there are all sorts of pressures to go along with these practices anyway: a supervisor pressures his or her team to meet quarterly quotas, any way that they can; a colleague asks another to remain mute about an infraction they witnessed; a customer asks for special treatment or a supplier offers an inducement in exchange for special attention; or too often, a manager or colleague treats another employee abusively or harasses them while other employees witness the behaviour uneasily. But just because employees are aware and uneasy does not mean they feel ready to ‘speak up’.

They fear retaliation, despite the anti-retaliation policies that firms adopt; they all know – or think that they know – of instances when such policies did not hold. They wish to remain in the good graces of their managers and colleagues. They worry about the fate of the organisation and experience conflicts of loyalty. And even more insidiously, as research has demonstrated, they fail to even allow themselves to recognise the values conflict, responding emotionally in the moment, and then rationalising post-hoc that it was the correct or only possible course of action.

Oct-Dec 2019 Issue

University of Virginia Darden School of Business