Blowing the Whistle: Why Some People Report Abuse in the Workplace (And Others Don’t)

September 08, 2022 • By Keith Giles

Organizations often want to encourage employees to report wrongdoing but don’t always know the best ways to foster open channels of communication. To understand how social relationships affect whistleblowing, Professor Patrick Bergemann of The Paul Merage School of Business at UCI and his research partner, Brandy Aven of Carnegie Mellon University, recently completed a study, “Whistleblowing and Group Affiliation: The Role of Group Cohesion and the Locus of the Wrongdoer in Reporting Decisions,” that was recently published in the journal Organization Science.

Bergemann’s professional interests primarily revolve around understanding factors that drive people to report inappropriate behavior, specifically in its social context. “When you think about the act of reporting someone else, it’s oftentimes someone you know, someone in your social group,” he says, “and there are likely to be social reactions when people report their colleagues or peers. Someone might say, ‘Great job!’ or, ‘How dare you?’ so it’s a very social decision.”

Information Gap

Most research on whistleblowing focuses on the individual, the nature of the wrongdoing, or the organization, but Bergemann and Aven felt something crucial was missing. “The research we’ve seen focuses on how reporters make decisions as individuals,” says Bergemann. But, so far, there’s been much less research on the social dimension of whistleblowing.”

This oversight partially inspired Bergemann’s curiosity. “It seems like a big mistake to overlook the social aspects of whistleblowing. Not that no one else has ever looked at this side before,” he says. “But in the past, approaches have tended to be rather simplified: Your likelihood of reporting a friend versus a stranger is one angle that’s been explored, for example. In a complex organizational context, the broader social dynamics haven’t been explored as much.”

Hard Answers

To get to the heart of how social groups affect whistleblowing, Bergemann and Aven took matters into their own hands, but it wasn’t easy. “Whistleblowing is a tough topic to study,” says Bergemann. “As you might guess, these are relatively rare events, and often companies hesitate to share information on whistleblowing publicly. So, even if companies have an HR department that encourages whistleblowing, they don’t tend to like sharing that information outside the company.”

Fortunately, Bergemann and Aven identified whistleblowing data collected in the 2010 Merit Principles Survey, containing information on over 42,000 federal employees across 24 agencies. “This survey allowed us to test our theory in two ways,” Bergemann says. “First, by examining retrospective behaviors for the subset of respondents who had prior knowledge of wrongdoing. Second, by analyzing prospective whistleblowing intentions using the full sample of respondents. We also created an online experiment to replicate our findings and corroborate our results.”

Group Think

Bergemann and Aven discovered that there was a distinction between whether the wrongdoer was a member of the whistleblower’s workgroup or someone outside of the group. “I think it’s fairly intuitive to most of us that we treat outsiders differently than insiders,” he says. “So, that was the first distinction we looked at. The second was how people felt about their workgroup. Did they view their group as cohesive, meaning that it had a spirit of teamwork and cooperation?”

As Bergemann explains, some of the findings weren’t shocking: “If someone committed wrongdoing within a person’s workgroup, and if that workgroup was very cohesive, that person would be less likely to blow the whistle,” he says. “That wasn’t very surprising. People want to protect other members of a tight-knit group. On the opposite side, if you hate working with the people in your workgroup, you might see reporting one of them as an opportunity to strike back.”

Inner Circles

However, there were findings in their study that revealed some less intuitive results. “What I found more interesting is what happens outside of the groups,” Bergemann says. “This is where we see the opposite pattern emerge. If you have a cohesive workgroup and see someone commit wrongdoing outside of that group, you are more likely to report them. Put together with the other findings, the more cohesive your workgroup, the less likely you are to report wrongdoing inside of your workgroup, and the more likely you are to report wrongdoing outside of your workgroup.”

The latter behavior appears to be about self-preservation. “If you’re reporting someone outside your group, and you have a very strong, tight-knit group, then you’re probably less worried about retaliation because other group members have your back,” he says. “But if your group isn’t cohesive, you’re not as secure about protection from those within. The fear of retaliation is likely stronger for those in less cohesive workgroups than those in stronger workgroups.”

Social Impact

The bottom line in their research is that corporations cannot ignore the power of groups and social relationships when it comes to whistleblowing. “If we want to root out wrongdoing within organizations, then it’s not enough to set up an anonymous hotline,” Bergemann says. “We need to understand why groups protect certain wrongdoers but not others, and then account for these dynamics. Otherwise, we will continue to have organizational blind spots where individuals can get away with misconduct.”

One solution for corporations who want to improve whistleblowing might be to encourage cohesive groups to mix together more. “This integration might encourage people to report wrongdoing more often,” Bergemann says. “That’s just one suggestion. From our research, it’s clear that we need to think more broadly about these social dynamics. If we don’t, then we’ll continue to see employees who protect members within their groups and not report as often.”

Patrick Bergemann studies the reporting of wrongdoing, broadly conceived. Understanding when and why people report wrongdoing is fundamental to understanding how organizations and polities address problematic behavior, prevent malfeasance and function effectively. Reporting wrongdoing is also an essential way that individuals can deter and punish discrimination, harassment and victimization in the workplace. His research has been published Organization Science, Management Science, the American Journal of Sociology and the American Sociological Review. His book, Judge Thy Neighbor: Denunciations in the Spanish Inquisition, Romanov Russia, and Nazi Germany, was published by Columbia University Press.