Tattling syndrome: What to do about it

Carl R. Oliver (oliveca@earthlink.net) is Senior Lecturer at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, and co-author of Business Ethics: The Path to Certainty, from which some of this article was adapted.

For every company, “tattling syndrome” is a fundamental problem. Cultural norms that discourage tattling plague corporate ethics programs and degrade their effectiveness. Employees resist speaking up when they see ethics problems. They grew up in a culture that influences them to turn a blind eye to coworkers' wrongdoing, to decide not to get involved, to speak no ill of anyone, to never spread gossip, and to not be informers or snitches.

Companies want their cultural norm to be: Speak up! Do not tolerate even the smallest ethics problem. The de facto minimum standards for company ethics programs are set by the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines for Organizations.[1] To meet those standards, companies need to detect, investigate, and fix ethics and compliance problems at the earliest possible time. So, they need employees to quickly report trouble indicators while the problems are small and relatively easy to fix, before they fester into ethics catastrophes.

To borrow a currently popular phrase, companies need to tell employees, “If you see something, say something.”

Companies provide reporting channels (e.g., ethics telephone hotlines/helplines, online messaging, and other methods) that employees or anyone can use to report ethics concerns; and they promise safety, saying no one who reports an issue in good faith need fear they will be punished or become victims of retaliation.

Fear of punishment or retaliation may be common obstacles to reporting, but another is simply that people learn not to tattle as they are growing up. They develop tattling syndrome.

What can a company do to make “see something, say something” happen?

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