Benchmark Ethics: Whistle-Blower, Ombudsman, and Values Champion

Three roles that are necessary to ensure the ethical health of a business are those of the whistle-blower, the ombudsman, and the values champion.

The Whistle-Blower

Time magazine designated three whistle-blowers as their “Persons of the Year” as 2003 began. Sherron Watkins of Enron, Cynthia Cooper of WorldCom, and Coleen Rowley of the FBI were moved by an exceptional dose of moral courage to speak up against, rather than meekly acquiesce in, corporate wrongdoing. “Blowing the whistle” is about making a loud noise that gets people’s attention and stops the action. It makes a public, visible issue out of an otherwise hidden wrong.

It takes courage to blow the whistle in a business context. You might be praised, of course, but a whistle-blower might also be passed over for a promotion (a “trouble-maker”!) and could even lose a job. “Old boy networks” can close ranks and punish whistle-blowers. Timid, cowardly organizations don’t want anyone rocking the boat. Whistle-blowers can be ridiculed as up-tight, legalistic, moralistic, spoil-sports. Little wonder that many people choose to keep quiet.

Of course, whistle-blowers can also do terrible harm if their accusations turn out to be wrong. Whistle-blowing should always be a “last resort”—not a rash response to a merely questionable activity. Only when a situation is clearly wrong and harmful, when all normal channels of reform are blocked, when one’s suspicions and concerns are confirmed by others, should the whistle be blown.

My advice to a would-be whistle-blower: be careful in your research. Get advice and counsel from others. Exhaust all other channels. Create a “paper trail” and clear, hard evidence of wrongdoing. If you do not have advocates with unimpeachable integrity and courage protecting you within the company, seriously consider inviting in investigative media, community activist groups, and the like. Do not trust the crooks; cover your back.

But how sad to have to provide such cautions. How much better for company leaders to insist that no unethical behavior will be tolerated and that everyone is urged and expected to speak up whenever there is a question. When everyone, from the CEO on down, embraces such a whistle-blower role and responsibility, the likelihood of a major, serious whistle-blowing episode radically diminishes.

The Ombudsman

If an organization would rather not be the subject of whistle-blowing (and maybe an investigative report by “Frontline,” “60 Minutes,” or the “SEC”), appointing an ethics ombudsman (individual or department) is an obvious, sensible move. “Ombudsman” comes from an old Scandinavian term for “king’s representative.” Today’s political ombudsmen mediate and resolve citizen complaints against the government.

If employees have a safe place to voice their ethical concerns and raise their questions in the business, the likelihood of defusing crises before any whistle needs to be blown rises dramatically. The ombudsman might be in the legal affairs department, in human resources, or in another area. Whatever their background and department, it must be someone of leadership, wisdom, and integrity. In addition to the official ombudsman, everyone in the organization can be encouraged to serve as an unofficial ombudsman in the sense of providing a listening ear and a thoughtful conversation partner whenever ethical questioning is important. Why put all the pressure on one person or office? Create a culture of ethical reflection and discussion.

The Values Champion

Both the whistle-blower and the ombudsman are “defensive” roles most of the time. That is, they field questions, crises, and problems. The third role is, by contrast, primarily about “offense.” The “values champion” paints the big picture of what the company is doing, where it has been, and where it is going. The values champion doesn’t just keep the financial numbers on people’s minds, he or she keeps the core values on people’s minds: what really matters, how we treat each other, how we communicate about our products, how we take responsibility for our failures, how we share the profits of our business, etc….

Obviously, the CEO and other top executives are necessarily the main ones to champion the core values of the company. But, as with the whistle-blowing and ombudsman roles, everyone can play the “values champion” role from time to time. If everyone, at every level, does something to uphold and articulate the core values of the company, ethical crises and breakdowns will be few and far between. The best defense is a good offense.

David W. Gill was co-founder of IBTE and author of Benchmark Ethics, a regular article in the first 32 issues of Ethix. After eight years of writing, speaking, teaching, and consulting in the Bay Area of California, he joined the faculty of Gordon-Conwell Theological Center (South Hampton, Mass.) in 2010, where he is also Director of the Mockler Center for Faith and Ethics in the Workplace.