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Companies retaliated against 8 million whistleblowers, survey indicates

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Surveys by the Ethics Resource Center show a doubling of retaliation against private sector employees over past four years. Could employers be following the example of the Obama administration?

Is the Obama administration’s draconian treatment of government whistleblowers encouraging whistleblower retaliation by private-sector employers? Surveys conducted by the Ethics Resource Center show that reprisals against private-sector employees have nearly doubled over the past four years, from 12 percent in 2007, to 15 percent in 2009, to 22 percent in 2011.

To put that increase into perspective, with more than 138 million people over the age of 18 currently employed in the U.S., more than 8.8 million people experienced retaliation for blowing the whistle from 2009-2011: this is roughly the population of New Jersey. In two short years, that number grew by 2.3 million people: approximately the population of Houston, and larger than the population of New Mexico. It also represents the average number of nightly viewers of Comedy Central’s The Daily Show. – Patricia Harned (ERC) in Huffington Post.

The percentage of private-sector workers who report misconduct has been rising, too, ERC reports.  Meanwhile, the incidence of misconduct has decreased. TheEthics Resource Center believes the poor economy is the cause.

[E]mployees are reporting on their peers at record levels, the survey found. Nearly two-thirds said they reported misconduct, up two points from 2009 and 12 percentage points higher than the 2005 record low. More than half of those reports go to supervisors, while a quarter go to higher management and only 5% go to whistleblower hotlines. (Wall Street Journal)

The business world is at an interesting point in time. During times of economic uncertainty, research shows that ethical conduct among US employees tends to be at its best. The past two years have been a prime example. In 2011, the percentage of employees who witnessed misconduct at work fell to a new low (45 percent); in 2007 57 percent of employees saw wrongdoing in the workplace. This year more employees reported the bad behavior they saw — reaching a record high of 65 percent.  — Patricia Harned (ERC) in Huffington Post

An increase in whistle blowing would itself discourage misconduct.  It stands to reason, therefore, that the greater likelihood of wrongdoing being reported, combined with a poorer outlook for finding alternative work, are motivating employees to avoid risky behaviors.

Not all of the reprisals experienced by an estimated 8 million corporate employees are severe enough for the employee to seek external assistance.

Most of the retaliation was passive, such as being excluded from decisions and work activity by a supervisor or being given a cold shoulder by peers. But 44% said they were reassigned, one-third of employees said they were demoted and 31% said they experienced physical harm to themselves or their property, a striking 27-percentage-point increase since 2009. (Wall Street Journal)

But, even the smaller number of 3 million or so whistleblowers experiencing significant reprisals vastly exceeds the combined capabilities of all nonprofits that provide whistleblower assistance. The amount of unmet need increases even more when one adds in government whistleblowers, who were not included in the ERC survey.

The ERC survey thus demonstrates a need for increased funding of nonprofits providing whistleblower assistance, which may include legal aid, but also other kinds of assistance, such as counseling and job hunting assistance.  The survey also is a red flag for government regulators and legislators proposing to privatize public safety functions.  It reports a climbing number of companies with “weak ethics cultures” and a rise in the number of employees who “perceived pressure to compromise standards in order to do their jobs.”  Thes urvey also found that four percent of the workers surveyed had observed “improper contributions to campaigns and parties“–a four-fold increase since the previous survey, conducted in 2009 (Roll Call).

Although it is not clear what led to the spike, there is no question that the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which opened the door to unlimited political spending by unions and corporations, has dramatically changed the landscape of political giving in the business world, heightening pressure on fundraisers to rake in big sums from new sources. (Roll Call)