Why is it important to understand and counter reprisals? Reprisals and silence in the face of wrongdoing ensure wrongdoing and corruption flourish at great costs to individuals and society. This includes not only damage to the economy and loss of money but also risks to the health and safety of people. Another consequence of allowing the continuation of reprisals against whistleblowers raises concerns about legitimizing organizational lawlessness and accepting corruption in government as a norm. Further, when institutional corruption occurs it can include loss of public trust.
In addition to personal factors, systemic factors influence whether concerns will be raised internally such as the internal environment. The ethical climate inside an organization is a major factor.
Organizational behaviorists assert that there are three elements which contribute to ethical dysfunction - structure, leadership and culture. Structure, as in a strict vertical hierarchy, inhibits communication and leaves a whistleblower with few options, particularly when there is top-down unethicality. Leadership has a powerful influence on the organizational culture. Leaders’ behaviors send important messages about what is important and what is not, how they respond to crises, what they reward and punish, and who they hire and fire. The culture of an organization or how people behave and treat each other takes its cues from leaders. (Source: Jurkiewicz, C. L. and R.A. Giacalone. “Organizational Determinants of Ethical Dysfunctionality”. Journal of Business Ethics. (2014))
For a fuller understanding of reprisals it is necessary to also consider the external environment in which organizations exist as this external environment has an influence on the internal environment. Researchers explain that organizational misconduct is socially and culturally produced. Facilitating this is: competition, economic success as a culturally approved goal, and erosion of norms supporting legitimate procedures for achieving this success. (Source: Merton qtd. in Vaughan – Controlling Unlawful Organizational Behaviour (1985)).
When misconduct occurs, it often sparks whistleblowing if internal cultures are not conducive to dealing with disclosures appropriately. And whistleblowing sparks reprisals. When misconduct is exposed, either internally or externally, it is often perceived as a threat - whether innocent or guilty – to other individuals’ ego, group or system and triggers underlying cognitive processes and emotions. These processes are often instinctive. Before change can take place, individuals in organizations need to become aware and understand how these thought processes and emotions influence individual and group behavior.
The following diagram depicts a federal organization and what is happening in its external environment. It also summarizes individual and organizational factors in its internal environment that moderate or influence how serious or otherwise reprisals will be. All organizations – both public and private, exist in a similar environment.