Whistleblowing complaints and retaliation

There has been an increase in retaliation complaints and the existence of retaliation against whistle blowers in particular is one of the main challenges of creating more ethical organizations.  What is going on and how can we improve our outcomes?

I was recently asked about this in relation to current events, but because this is a common problem for all organizations, I'm sharing my answer here.

I come at this from a behavioral perspective I provide federal No FEAR Act training – which is the law protecting employees from retaliation - and refresher training for EEO counselors and investigators.

The increase in retaliation complaints – can be viewed as a good thing. It means – people are willing to report retaliation instead of be silenced by it.  The problem was always there – the increase in complaints mean – people aren’t tolerating it any more.  This is a necessary step to creating more ethical cultures.  We have to behaviorally extinguish the unethical behavior.

Behavioral extinction is very predictable. If someone is doing something that works, and suddenly it doesn’t work. They don’t stop. They do that thing more.  In bullying, harassment or other criminal activity – what has always worked is intimidation, so when someone blows the whistle – they bully and intimidate more. With bullying and harassment, we call this predicted escalation of behavior – retaliation, but it’s really – just an escalation of existing behavior.  This escalation is predicted ONLY IF the behavior is established, meaning – it’s a behavioral habit of the individual. If the person does not have a habit of bullying, they will not respond to a whistleblower complaint this way at all because – there is no behavioral habit to extinguish.    This behavioral escalation is so predictable with established behaviors that escalation of bullying behavior is one of the best ways to verify that something inappropriate was indeed happening.

Retaliation is a form of bullying. But you can only do that if you know the identity of the person who blew the whistle. With the current federal situation, the accused don’t know who blew the whistle,  which makes putting pressure on the whistleblower impossible. This is probably why they are so desperate to know the identity of the whistleblower.  And again, for people with experience in behavioral extinction, this searching for the whistleblower is quite telling.  People who aren’t in the habit of doing unethical things, don’t increase their unethical behavior when accused of crimes because that is not their habit. Only people who are in the habit of intimidating people increase their unethical behavior.  And intimidating people – is unethical.  If the person has anxiety issues but doesn’t bully, then they would respond to being accused with more anxiety behavior. Whatever the behavior habit is - you will expect to see more of it and it will be more obvious it is happening and less hidden and more overt – which is exactly what we are seeing now.

This instinctual dynamic of someone for whom intimidation has always worked to use more intimidation to stop the accusations against them, is exactly why whistleblower identities should be held secret if possible (it’s not always possible).  But they should be kept secret at least through the investigation period.  It’s also why reporting of retaliation efforts is so important. They provide evidence to the investigators that something unethical is indeed happening and help build the case.

In the federal system, whistle blowers are only protected if they use a very specific process – usually involving the Inspector general.  The laws against retaliation don’t prevent retaliation from happening.  What they do is provide remedies for people who were materially or mentally harmed by retaliation.  They aren’t set up to stop it. Just to provide economic remedies for people who were harmed by it.  This distinction matters because to create more ethical workplaces and eliminate the bullying and harassment and intimidation that comes from unethical people trying to protect their power within an organization, we have to use a behavioral extinction process, which is NOT what the whistle blower system and the No FEAR Act do.

To be honest, the entire complaint system is a bit onerous and lengthy. It is necessarily that way, but it is not the sort of system a behaviorist would have set up.  The system is NOT set up to stop bullying/harassment and retaliation. The whistle blower system is design for employees to report criminal and unethical activity. Which may be a discreet single instance of something or – at least – it can be reported that way and handled that way. Bullying/harassment and retaliation, by contrast, are patterns of behavior and to document it, you have to document a pattern of behavior. Not a single report – multiple reports over time.  The No FEAR Act and EEO system and whistle blower system, aren’t set up to handle that. They are bureaucracies set up to handle – individual complaints.  We should be creating parallel systems to handle and document ongoing behavioral problems and assist with the behavioral extinction process so that we can eliminate the problem entirely.  But that is just my humble opinion.

Want to learn more - take one of my courses:

I provide federal No FEAR Act training – which is the law protecting employees from retaliation - and refresher training for EEO counselors and investigators.

What does spirituality mean to a humanist?

Most Humanists I know - don’t care for the word at all. Precisely because it could mean anything.
However there are secular uses of the word and definitions from various groups that can help us understand what it means - outside of a religious context.
First - the Spiritual Naturalist Society - What is Spiritual Naturalism? says - “to have spirituality is to be concerned with the larger, deeper, and essential matters of life and to apply ourselves consciously toward them in a committed practice or ‘walk’. This includes, as Socrates put it, the ‘examined life’, and this is what we mean by spirituality.”
For me personally - “Spirituality, in a secular sense, is the spirit in which you approach life. In this sense, it’s critical you attend to your spiritual life because it is actually attending to your motivational needs. How you motivate yourself. Why you motivate yourself. This is the realm of philosophy. Some people attend to this need with religious philosophy. Others with secular philosophy. I attend to this need with the Humanist philosophy specifically.”
The point is - if and when a Humanist talks about spirituality - they are talking about Secular Spirituality. There is a really nice wikipedia article that explains it and the tradition of secular spirituality here - Secular spirituality - Wikipedia

7 steps to keep in mind when hiring, training, and managing staff in a humanistic management framework.

Here are seven steps to keep in mind when hiring, training, and managing staff in a humanistic management framework.

Step 1: Recognize the individual for who they are as a whole person, and not just as someone with specific knowledge you think might be helpful.

Step 2: Provide them with the right work environment so that their personality and skills can be utilized fully and not suppressed because you as the manager cannot figure out how to take advantage of their unique abilities and temperament.

Step 3: Ensure that your staff are properly oriented. They need to understand the big picture, how their part of the work fits into the rest of the organization, and how the different pieces inter-relate to create the whole. A good orientation explains how everyone in the company is dependent on everyone else doing their job in order for the company to work effectively. Make sure they know how important their work is, even if what you are asking them to do is sweep your floors. It is all essential or you would not have hired them.

Step 4: Make sure they have the training they need to do the job. If you hire someone to sweep your floors, but you do not ensure they know how to use a broom, they probably are not going to succeed.

Step 5: Verify that they have learned your specific and unique processes. Do not assume it is obvious. Every work group has its quirks. Even sweeping the floor for a company has quirky requirements. Do not omit those during training or you set your employee up for failure. If they do fail, do  not treat them as a failure; it was your fault as the manager that you did not teach them this quirk. If they come up with a solution to a problem and it is not the solution you hoped for, understand that they are creatively solving a problem, and that is a good thing. Do not punish them for that. Learn why what you thought was going to work—did not and how the processes need to be adjusted to take into account—the reality the employees experience.

Step 6: In the early stages of an employee’s work for you, check their work and help them learn from the mistakes made in Step 4. It is amazingly disheartening to think you are doing something correctly and doing it for a long time only to find out that you have been doing it wrong all along and no one bothered to tell you. No one feels good about that. When this happens, it is the manager’s fault. The sooner you can help an employee identify a problem and correct it, the happier everyone will be. The longer you let something linger, the more frustration and anger will arise when you finally do correct it.

Step 7: Thank them for their work. Do not take it for granted that they were going to do it anyway. People like to know you appreciate their work. The key to doing this step well is to understand that different individuals need different rewards for their work. In order to provide them with a reward that is meaningful to them, you need to know what is motivating them. It is not just that people are getting paid for their work. That is nice, but it is not all people want. I started my professional career working in volunteer management. With volunteers, you do not reward them with pay. You have to provide them with another reason to volunteer for you. Some people want public recognition. Some people are looking for friendships, some are looking to learn new skills, and some get really excited when they accomplish something difficult that they did not think was possible. In order to keep your employees happy and loyal, you need to treat them as the individuals they are and figure out what is motivating them so that you can individualize your approach for each employee. This sounds harder than it actually is. Break down the most common motivations and design your rewards and thanks programs to provide the customized motivation your different employees require. Structured flexibility really does work. Most managers fail at this because they are only really comfortable working with people who are basically like them and motivated by the same things as they are. A humanistic business manager stretches themselves out of their comfort zone to make sure they are treating each of their employees with dignity and celebrate the unique gifts and traits that each brings to the company. After all, if you have a company of likeminded individuals, you are limiting yourself and your problem-solving and your customer base to people who are like you. That is not good for business.

Learn more about applied Humanism in business at:

And get my new book on applied Humanist at: https://humanistlearning.com/new-book-applied-humanism-how-to-create-more-effective-and-ethical-businesses/

How do I practice humanism?

The simple answer is - try to be a good person. That’s pretty much it.
In all decisions you make - take time to think of what the ethical/good thing to do is - then try to do that.
Frustrated in a store - take a moment to think about what a good outcome would be - and try to do that.
In an argument with someone? Think of how you can change what you are doing - to get a better outcome -not just for yourself, but for them as well.
In business? Thinking through a strategic problem? Think about what a good ethical solution would be - then do that.
Just - try to be a good person.
Humanism has no dogma. We have not prescriptions or rituals or required behaviors. All that Humanism is - is a commitment to try to put our reason and compassion into action.
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