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Why colleagues expose each other for bad behavior -- and why they don't

I just finished reading Columbia Business School professor Ernesto Reuben's article about whistleblowing in the workplace (Columbia Ideas at Work, Summer 2013).

As I have led many small teams right from my early career days in the late 80s, I have seen quite a few whistleblowing incidents myself. My office door was either non-existent (early career) or open. So anyone including trainees could walk in any time to discuss anything. But, under what circumstances did they expose, and not expose, a colleague's questionable behavior?

They exposed if ...

  • The issue negatively impacted them or a friend
  • They wanted to take vengeance on that person
  • They wanted to get rid of that person (as part of a larger plot)

They did not expose if ...

  • The issue did not impact them personally
  • They were planning to leave the team or the company
  • They were scared of that person
  • They wanted to teach the affected person/team a lesson (as in "I told you he/she was a bad person, but you didn't listen.")

An environment that permits bad behavior costs a lot to the company and possibly to affected individuals as well. Professor Reuben’s research underscores that "businesses must consider the barriers whistleblowers may face and be prepared to help manage them."


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