WSC Network Research Highlight: Encouraging Whistleblowing

By: Elizabeth Moraff

Work Science Center Network Member, Darell Burell, and a team of researchers recently published a paper investigating factors impacting whistleblowing in police departments. The research team identified a series of allegations of police misconduct and the nationwide increase in such complaints. The article notes that police face particular stressors in their role, and that indications of misconduct erode public trust, impeding police ability to perform their function. Therefore, researchers postulated that whistleblowing and other behaviors to reinforce ethical climate are tantamount to police effectiveness and safety (Burell, Bhargava, Kemp, & Vermuganti, 2019).

The researchers highlight promotion of an ethical climate (i.e., workers all feel as though employees and the employer value ethical behavior) as a crucial factor that encourages whistleblowing. On an individual level, they identified emotional acumen (i.e., the ability to navigate complex emotional situatuations) as playing a major role. Results from a series of focus groups consisting of a combination of current and former African-American police officers focused on ethical experiences on the force and provide nine main propositions for encouraging ethical climates in police departments. The suggestions included organization-level changes as well as leadership interventions. For instance, focus groups stressed the need for each department to have a clear, defined, and communicated set of ethical expectations. They noted that such expectations should include what would be considered proper and improper behavior, and that ethical behavior should be required for raises and promotions. Qualitative data revealed a desire for leaders to publicly acknowledge ethical behavior and to weave conversations about ethics into everyday operations, as well as leading by example.

Some of the suggested interventions (e.g., a biannual polygraph test for all employees of the police department), however, could raise their own ethical issues. As public visibility of organizational behavior increases, it is becoming more important for all organizations, not just police departments, to create ethical climates. This study provides a potential starting point for the conversation of how best to go about shifting organizational culture to promote ethical behavior, and creating an environment in which whistle blowing or reporting of unethical behavior is acceptable and encouraged.

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