We’ve recently been doing a lot of thinking about how to improve honesty – whether people are putting extra items into their shopping bags at self-serve checkouts, or filling out insurance forms fraudulently.

One of the themes we’re exploring is what makes people report their concerns about dishonest behaviour. Specifically, we’ve been looking at how our attitudes towards loyalty can affect the decisions we make about reporting bad behaviour. Most of us prize and encourage loyalty but is it always a good thing?

Whistleblower by Ben

Whistleblower by Ben Sanders

When loyalty goes wrong

The code of silence within gang culture and religious cults suggests a negative aspect of loyalty. All of us are programmed to want to be part of a group, which can cause us to adapt our behaviour to the status quo in order to fit in. Organisations put a lot of energy and resources into encouraging their employees and customers to be loyal to their brand and overarching ethos. This should be harmless enough as long as that organisation is not bent on worldwide domination, right?

Actually, this can lead to problems when people’s loyalties lead them to turn a blind eye to wrongdoing. The Jimmy Saville scandal is a specific example of the wide-scale damage and trauma that can result from people failing to report their suspicions. While you don’t want people to phone 999 to report a colleague’s paperclip theft, how can you encourage people to report wrongdoing without going against their natural instinct to remain loyal to the group?

Science has a suggestion

Researchers conducted a series of studies to examine what made people become whistle-blowers. They asked a group of people to write a paragraph about a time when they had witnessed unethical behaviour and reported it. They got another group to write about an occasion when they had witnessed unethical behaviour and kept silent. Both groups had to explain why.

They found that the whistle-blowers used ten times more words related to fairness and justice, than non-whistle-blowers, who used twice as many terms related to loyalty. The evidence suggests that loyalty impulses may conflict with reporting bad behaviour.

How can this finding impact employee behaviour?

The researchers suggested that if we want to encourage people to share their concerns, be it about anything from theft, fraud to sexual abuse, we should emphasise the concept of fairness in our communications. Within an organisation, this could be anything from mission statements, codes of ethics, job profiles or marketing communications. You could also nudge those who highly regard employee loyalty to come forward by re-framing whistle-blowing in terms of the greater good.

You might think that these communications would be unlikely to have an effect in the face of deep-seated and strongly-held views. But even research participants who wrote a short essay on fairness in advance of witnessing shoddy work, became more likely to report it than those who’d been asked to write about loyalty.

Priming your employees with fairness may improve levels of honest reporting within your organisation. At least it’s worth a fair try.

This post was written by Jo Parry.

Image kindly supplied by Ben Sanders.