Retaliation against whistle-blowers: an integration and typology.

Author:Rehg, Michael T.

    As greater numbers of employees take an active role in policing misconduct in the workplace, whistle-blowers are coming forth in all types of industries and organizations--educational institutions, private business, civil service organizations, and public and government organizations. However, not all organizations are receptive to this aid from within. All too often, cases are appearing in the media of whistle-blowers who suffer retaliation at the hands of their employers. A recent case involved Cheryl Eckard, a quality manager at GlaxoSmithKlein who blew the whistle on questionable safety practices at a Puerto Rico plant, and was subsequently fired, for which the company paid a $750 million settlement (Harris and Wilson, 2010).

    Although cases of retaliation against whistle blowers have been well publicized in the popular media, it has not received as much attention in the academic literature. Research on retaliation against whistle blowers has generally been conducted in one of two ways: case studies of situations brought to the attention of the media (Glazer & Glazer, 1989; Soeken & Soeken, 1987; Vinton, 1994), and large mail surveys which looked at retaliation in general, in terms of its predictors and effects (Rehg, Miceli, Near & Van Scotter, 2008; Miceli & Near, 1989; Near & Miceli, 1986; Miceli, Rehg, Near, & Ryan 1999; Parmerlee, Near, & Jensen 1982). Notwithstanding the use of these two methods of approaching the subject, retaliation is still not well understood in the organizational setting. The ineffectiveness of the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978 and numerous laws established to protect whistleblowers (the Whistle-blower Protection Act of 1989, its enhancement in 2007, Sarbanes-Oxley and many state laws), indicates that there may be something inherent in the process of whistle-blowing that defies legislative attempts to prevent retaliation. Is retaliation against whistleblowers something too ingrained in human behavior to prevent its occurrence? One thing is clear: retaliation has an impact on the relationship between supervisors and subordinates, employees and their organizations, and organizations and the society in which they function. With cases of retaliation against whistle-blowers rising at the EEOC on a yearly basis, it is now the single highest category of EEOC cases--as of FY 2010 it stood at 36% of all EEOC cases (EEOC, 2011). One reason for the recent rise may be the 2006 Supreme Court decision in a case against Burlington Northern, in which a broader definition of retaliation was endorsed (Tuna, 2009). Whatever the reason, it has become imperative to provide managers with a more detailed understanding of retaliatory behavior and why it appears to be so prevalent in whistle-blowing cases. For the most part, it is a process which has been assumed to be homogenous--the same for all types of retaliation. Building on theories of power and control, this paper examines and integrates four models of retaliation and proposes a new approach. Rather than assume that retaliation is a homogeneous process--the question being studied here is how does the phenomenon of retaliation occur, and can we group retaliatory actions into different types that exhibit different predictors and effects?


    Depending on the subject matter, retaliation can encompass a variety of concepts. O'Day (1974) described retaliation as management's reaction to reform. Thus retaliation would be a means for an organization to control the whistle-blower through the exercise of power. In this context, retaliation may be a bureaucratic response to a threat or a tactical action to prevent a future threat to the organization, which, in threatening situations, may result in a rigidity of organizational response (Staw, Sandelands, & Dutton, 1981). Organizations that perceive whistle-blowing as a threat will respond negatively to the whistle-blower, especially if this threat is to the status quo (McClelland, Liang and Barker, 2010). Bureaucratic organizations are less receptive to change (Daft, 1978), and since whistle-blowing is a challenge to the authority structure, the basis of bureaucracy, bureaucratic organizations will be resistant to whistle-blowers (Weinstein, 1979). Retaliation, then, will be considered here to be the negative actions taken towards whistle-blowers by members of the organization, in response to the reporting of wrongdoing.

    Whistle-blowers in organizations with a negative climate towards whistle-blowing violate the norms of the group or organization by reporting wrongdoing and may suffer retaliation as punishment for their behavior. The whistle-blower would be perceived to be a deviant, and sanctions from the group are one means used to control deviants (Schachter, 1951, Mugny, Perez and Lamongie, 2010).

    For organizations, the question of control is one of enforcement. Formal control can be expensive and time-consuming, requiring a lot of monitoring on the part of management (O'Reilly & Chapman, 1996). In addition, as task uncertainty increases, there is a need for greater flexibility, and this decreases the effectiveness of formal systems, while increasing the cost (Caldwell & O'Reilly, 1995). This brings about the use of informal means. Eisenhardt (1985) argued that socialization or clan control would be used depending on the type of task, while Anand, Ashforth and Joshi (2005) found that socialization tactics may be used by organizations to perpetuate corrupt behavior. Miceli and Near (1992) postulated that differences in the amount of dependence on the wrongdoing may elicit different responses from co-workers and management. Co-workers not dependent on a particular type of wrongdoing may not retaliate against a whistle-blower, while management may retaliate due to their dependence on the same wrongdoing. Finding this difference "suggests that separate measures of retaliation are needed: one representing actions of retaliation under the control of management, and the other representing retaliation carried out by co-workers" (Miceli & Near, 1992: 207; from Miceli & Near, 1988b). This suggestion runs parallel with the dichotomy between Weber's bureaucratic or formal organization and the Human Relations schools' endorsement of the informal organization. Clegg and Dunkerley (1980) described these:

    "Formal organization refers to official rules and behavior which is stipulated or governed by these rules. Informal organization refers to values and patterns of behavior which are independent of these formal rules and which develop out of the interaction of persons in groups in the organization." (p. 132)

    This is the dichotomy that will be used to examine retaliation behavior, a dichotomy which has not been integrated into past models of retaliation. If there are two types, they may differ in their predictors and effects, including their effectiveness in achieving the silence or absence of the whistle-blower.

    2.1 The Retaliation Process

    What happens when employees blow the whistle, and their organizations must choose to either accommodate or resist them? This depends on several factors, such as the power of the whistle-blower, and the seriousness of the wrongdoing (which may also affect the initial decision to blow the whistle). More than likely there will be an...

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