August 2023 | 

Be Heard: Actionable Advice for Blowing the Whistle

Be Heard: Actionable Advice for Blowing the Whistle

Inequities in the workplace, including unfairness in pay, promotion, and other treatment, are well documented. But most of those inequities fall under the category of systemic issues — and addressing them is a long-term undertaking that involves company and societal culture change in addition to better policies and individual management. In other words, in light of the serious hurdles that stand in the way of solving them, examining those inequities can be depressing.

Wharton management professor and deputy dean Nancy Rothbard’s new research is different, though. In “Does Power Protect Female Moral Objectors? How and When Moral Objectors’ Gender, Power, and Use of Organizational Frame Influence Perceived Self-Control and Experienced Retaliation,” she and co-author Timothy Kundro not only show that there are differences in how people are perceived when they raise moral objections at work, but they offer a proven fix.

“Over my entire career, I've been documenting a lot of the challenges that women and those in underrepresented groups face in organizations,” says Rothbard. “One of the things I was so excited about with this paper is that, yes, we documented a challenge, but we also were able to document a solution that worked for women and those with lower status and power in organizations. It equalizes the playing field for everyone, and it's straightforward and simple.”

The challenge Rothbard refers to is that while organizations need people to speak up when they see unethical behavior, many people stay quiet because they fear retaliation or being seen as a troublemaker. “The only people who seem to be able to speak up without negative consequences are high-powered men,” says Rothbard. “That's because we assume that when a high-powered man says something is wrong, they're doing it because they're worried about the organization and the people in it.”

“When high-powered women, and low-powered men and women, do the same thing,” she continues, “people don't make that assumption.” In fact, the new research cites four separate studies that find that women and men both engage in more retaliatory behavior against female moral objectors in positions of higher power than against men of similar rank. “That's the implicit bias we are all living with,” says Rothbard, “and it's really challenging because it limits the potential benefits that would come from people raising these moral objections.”

Other research on gender has found that women are viewed as being out of control and unhinged when they are passionate or have strong feelings about something. “That's always been troubling to me,” says Rothbard, “because we need people to be passionate about issues in organizations. But with moral objections, unless you're a high-powered man, you will be viewed as lacking self-discipline and being selfish. The response is along the lines of, ‘Why couldn't you just keep quiet and be appropriate and well-behaved?’”

It’s Not What You Say, But How You Say It

Rothbard and Kundro found that how you bring up such an objection, whether you’re a high-powered woman or a low-powered man or woman, makes the difference in how you will be perceived. “It seems obvious when you're calling out a moral objection that you're raising the issue because it's going to hurt the organization and the people in it if it isn’t addressed,” says Rothbard. “But our study shows it's not obvious to other people. There’s a real disconnect between the real and the perceived motives.”

She explains that women with any level of power and low-powered men are assumed to be acting out of a selfish agenda. “It was interpreted as if they were not doing it on behalf of the collective. That's the insight that gave us the clue that an intervention would be able to solve the problem.”

The solution? Framing the objection in terms of what is best for the organization and its members. Rather than saying that a behavior or practice is problematic because it is immoral or unethical in and of itself, use phrases such as “it might come back to hurt the company,” “it could potentially cause issues for our organization and its people,” and “to protect our organization and its people.” Rothbard says although it may seem frustrating that women and lower-powered individuals have to explain themselves, “we can't just rely on other people giving us the benefit of the doubt all the time. If you want to be taken seriously when you raise moral objections, you need to be clearer about why you're raising them, and how it is a potential risk for the organization and for the community to proceed with business as usual.”

Further, the research recommends adopting the practice across the organization, no matter the gender or level of power. “It’s a good business practice for everybody,” say Rothbard. “High-powered men should also be doing it too, because it's a better communication strategy. It’s beneficial to better know why they're raising that moral objection, because it means that we're all going to be more calibrated and be able to help with whatever the issue is that's being raised.”

Four Steps for Reducing Retaliation for Moral Objections

Rothbard and Kundro have identified four ways organizations can lessen retaliations and, in the process, encourage workers to speak up when they see unethical behaviors or practices:

  1. Encourage all moral objectors, regardless of gender and structural power, to use an organizational frame when raising moral objections. Rothbard and Kundro say, “This will ensure that gendered outcomes are reduced and will increase the receptivity of moral objections from lower-powered individuals as well.”
  2. Train employees at all levels to use organizational frames, and provide examples of how to frame common moral objections.
  3. Help employees recognize their own biases and learn to reframe the moral objections they encounter. “Debiasing, although difficult, may be accomplished through formalized channels, such as holding a workshop that asks employees to engage in perspective-taking about why employees might want to engage in moral objection,” they say.
  4. Highlight the benefits that moral objections provide organizations. Rothbard and Kundro say, “Organizations can publicize and promote moral objections that have been raised internally and emphasize the benefits to the organization and its members that accrue as a result.”