The recent high profile stories of employees leaking information to the press (Snowden / Manning) demonstrate an interesting decision between ethics and morality. When an organisations ethics and an individual’s morals collide – when is it right to blow the whistle?

Firstly, let’s agree what we’re discussing as the difference between ethics and morality is not always distinct:

Ethics are determined by rules or conduct in respect to a particular group, culture or for the purposes of this blog: business. Where a business is concerned ethics are set internally by virtue of a code of conduct that would forbid certain actions, such as the passing of data to external sources. Not to follow these rules would result in an individual facing peer/social disapproval (if found out!) or simply being dismissed.

Morals are determined by a combination of an employee’s own ideals and principles. Specifically, they would need to follow their individual and fundamental belief of what is right or wrong. Not to abide by their own moral code could leave an employee feeling disenfranchised, unhappy and uncomfortable with the companies’ ethics.

The collision
As employees we are duty bound to act in a certain way. Ordinarily an employer’s ethics would match those of their employees, however, as morals relax and new stigmas appear it becomes clear that neither ethics nor morality is fixed or universally agreed.  In a diverse society morals and ethics will not always align meaning there is no correct answer to whether an action is right or wrong. Because of this lack of a “universally agreed code of ethics” the risk of an employee contravening an organisation’s code of conduct will always exist.

This perennial risk should make this an issue that cannot be ignored especially when you consider the very public ramifications of employees. Unfortunately, this doesn’t seem to be the case as this article from the BBC shows a surprising 60% of employee’s who voiced fears in their workplaces received no response with as many as 15% of those blowing the whistle being dismissed for their actions.

Okay – not all whistle blowers are noble characters looking to expose wasteful or fraudulent activities – some may be disgruntled employee’s with their own agenda. Whatever your personal view organisations must consider the issue objectively and ensure that:

  1. The correct mechanism exists to allow employee’s who are aware of any wrong doing to voice their concerns via the correct channels with a guarantee that those disclosing will not be penalised for doing so.
  1. Identifying and measuring the people risk that exists within the organisation. See Helen Sharps blog on People Risk – “the risk to the firm caused by its people and the risk to the firm caused by what the firm does to its people”

The question isn’t whether it’s right or wrong – it’s making sure you’re in the game before the whistles blown.