How to Blow the Whistle without Blowing Your Career

New study finds employees only report half the unethical behavior they witness at work

Whistleblower study infographic

New study from the authors of “Crucial Accountability” shows employees only report half of the unethical behavior they witness at work.

October 15, 2013—Provo, UT—Carl A. discovered that his CEO was guilty of falsifying sales records to make the organization seem more successful than it was, so he blew the whistle. While his CEO went to jail, the company survived a resultant bankruptcy and thrives today.

However, an online survey of 926 people administered by the New York Times best-selling authors of Crucial Accountability found that whistleblowers like survey respondent Carl are the exception, rather than the rule. While 63 percent of respondents regularly witness both minor and major ethical infractions, employees confront only half of the unethical behavior they witness at work.

The top three minor ethical violations include: taking credit for someone else’s work, taking extra long breaks and calling in sick when actually well. A third of respondents reported seeing one of these minor infractions in the last week.

Taking unfair revenge, embezzling significant value and coercing sexual favors are the most common major infractions observed. When these more gross violations are suspected, only one in four employees confront their unethical colleague.

Why do most stay mum when witnessing unethical behavior? The top “excuses” employees gave for not blowing the whistle include:

  1. It might damage their career
  2. It would have made the offender harder to work with
  3. They didn’t think they would be taken seriously
  4. They weren’t sure how to bring up their concerns

Joseph Grenny, co-author of Crucial Accountability, says the more often people choose to stay silent, the more likely it is norms will shift, ethics will decline and companies will suffer severe consequences.

“While biting your lip may make your job easier in the short term, it does little to preserve productive working relationships and profitable organizations,” says Grenny. “History reveals a long line of washed-up leaders and immoral companies that are eventually ousted for their crimes. That’s why it’s in every employee’s best interest to hold colleagues accountable for unethical behavior.”

The study showed that those who speak up about small infractions are six times more likely to speak up about a major one—suggesting that ethical climates are created more likely if and when employees feel enabled to blow the whistle.

But exactly how does someone hold a colleague accountable when they observe bad behavior, violations or even crimes? Grenny offers eight tips to blow the whistle without blowing your career:

  1. First, tend to your safety. If raising the issue to the offender directly will cause you harm, seek security, HR or legal assistance. If not, take the following steps.
  2. Gather data. Given that you’re likely to encounter confusion and denial, gather all the data you can to help make your case. The clearer your data, the more likely you are to be persuasive.
  3. Avoid conspiracy. If you have an obligation to report the offense to supervisors or other agencies, do so immediately. If the lapse is offensive but not reportable, confront the individual in a respectful but direct way.
  4. Start by sharing your good intentions. Begin by letting the other person know you have his or her best interest in mind. This shows your purpose is not to question motives or authority, but to deal with a possible problem before it spins out of control.
  5. Share your facts. Lay out the concern using data—strip your explanation of any judgment or accusation. For example, don’t say, “You stole office supplies.” Rather say, “I noticed you placed a ream of copy paper in your briefcase.”
  6. Tentatively share your concerns. As suspicious as the activity may seem or how clear your observations, there might be a reasonable explanation. Use tentative terms and expressions. For example, “I’m not exactly sure of what I saw today, but I was tempted to conclude…”
  7. Get the other person’s point of view. Once you’ve described what you think you saw, ask the offender for his or her perspective. But be careful—you are not inviting his or her view in order to surrender yours—just to ensure you have all the facts. Listen for information not excuses.
  8. Take it up a level. Finally, if you can’t work it out to your satisfaction, either take it to your boss (if he or she isn’t the party in question) or take it to HR. You’ve shown your respect by talking directly to the offender and now you’re going to have to involve another party.

Note to editor: Joseph Grenny, co-author of Crucial Accountability, is available for interview.

About VitalSmarts
An innovator in corporate training and leadership development, VitalSmarts is home to the award-winning Crucial Conversations, Crucial Accountability, Influencer, and Change Anything Training and New York Times best-selling books of the same titles. When used in combination, these courses enable organizations to achieve new levels of performance by changing employee behavior. VitalSmarts has consulted with more than 300 of the Fortune 500 companies and trained more than one million people worldwide.

CONTACT: Laura Potter of VitalSmarts, L.C. +1-801-510-7590, or

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