New UNT research is the first to examine outsider reactions to whistleblowing
DENTON (UNT), Texas -- New research from the University of North Texas College Of Business is the first of its kind to examine how third party observers react to whistleblowers who report wrongdoings.
While existing research on whistleblowers examines what makes a person decide to come forward and report a wrongdoing, Accounting Department faculty members at UNT Jesse Robertson, Cameron Cockrell, Mary Curtis and Dutch Fayard developed a written experiment and surveyed UNT students to examine how observers to a wrongdoing and reporting would treat those involved.
"Our research participants were third party observers of the whistleblower and wrongdoer, so they were just observing the interaction and deciding how they would treat the people involved," Curtis said. "This is very realistic in organizational settings. What was interesting is that we found that whether an observer would ostracize the wrongdoer or whistleblower depended largely on three things: whether they personally liked the wrongdoer, whether they felt the whistleblower violated social norms, and the observer's own moral feelings about the severity of the action the wrongdoer was accused of."
Whether a person believes they will be ostracized for whistleblowing is a big deterrent in the decision to reporting wrongdoings, Fayard said.
"One reason so few people are willing to whistleblow is because they are concerned about the social impact," Fayard said. "With this research now there is reason to justify that concern. The reporter is going outside of a social norm and they may be punished for it."
For wrongdoers, the research suggests charisma and likability are big factors determining how peers will react, Curtis said.
"We found that an observer's reaction to the wrongdoer will depend on whether or not they like the wrongdoer," she said. "So, you have a highly charismatic person who may be able to get away with a lot of wrongdoing because of their charisma, because people like them and don't want to think bad things about them."
Another factor the research uncovered was that the strength and clarity of an organization's code of conduct was not a factor in whether peers ostracized a whistleblower for following code, Robertson said.
"Two conditions in the project were based on the ambiguity and strength of an organization's code of conduct," he said. "So we had a very strong line in one showing what is wrong and what to do, and another that was ambiguous. We expected that more clarity in the code would help the reporter, and would put them in a better light because they're clearly following the code. But, we found peers were more likely to ostracize the whistleblower than the wrongdoer, regardless of whether the code was ambiguous or clear. This is important because organizations often use codes of conduct to try to improve ethical decision-making."