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R.C.M.P.’s culture shift typifies whistleblower challenge

The R.C.M.P.’s commissioner wants to change his force’s culture to encourage members to raise concerns about internal problems. William Elliott says he wants to make it easier for lower-ranking members of the force to blow the whistle on questionable practices.
The bad news for the R.C.M.P. is that it appears it will take a fundamental culture shift for that to happen. The good news is that they are not alone in confronting this challenge.
A recent study of the R.C.M.P. indicated that rank-and-file members tend to keep complaints about the internal workings of the force to themselves. They fear negative repercussions for speaking out. This is, in my belief, a dynamic that is more likely to exist (and more likely to get worse) the larger an organization becomes. 
All larger organizations should have some form of policy encouraging employees to voice concerns about improper or ineffective procedures and practices. The rank and file employees are closest to the day-to-day operations of the company (certainly far closer than any executive) and are in the best position to detect questionable practices. 
It may be a painful thing for management to hear these disclosures but, organizationally, it is a healthy practice. It ensures that poor or improper practices are rooted out early and it allows employees to feel that their role in the organization has some meaning and impact.   
So, why is it that whistleblowers face such challenges? First, there is the inescapable reality that at the root of every questionable practice is a person (often a person in a position of authority). The tendency, amongst managers and corporate executives, is to surround themselves with subordinates who will bolster their view, rather than criticize it. 
But a corporation which desires long-term sustainability and profitability must develop an environment in which decision-makers are challenged by critical thinkers. In this environment, employees who object to the existing way of doing things are embraced rather than ostracized. 
Second, bureaucratic organizations are often poisoned by a culture of “can’t”. It is an atmosphere characterized by slavish adherence to policies and procedures, a lack of creativity, and an unwillingness to stick one’s neck out.
It is an environment where, as I call it, the operation of the business has acquired priority over the business of the operation. Most of all, it is an environment where individuality is quashed. As a result, a lone voice sounding the alarm about questionable practices tends to be suppressed rather than encouraged.
The antidote to the poisonous “can’t” culture is a continuous dose of “what if?”. This approach provokes employees to challenge established policies and procedures, to exercise creativity, and to stick their neck out. Organizations which challenge themselves and their past failures (and even their successes) by welcoming creative ideas will embrace employees who question the way things are presently being done.
Third, bureaucratic organizations are often plagued by a lack of trust towards the ultimate decision makers.  It is, I suspect, partly a result of the sheer distance separating the ultimate decision makers from the rank and file. This distrust creates, as in the case of the R.C.M.P., a fear of repercussions when contrary ideas or views are advanced.
The way for an atmosphere of trust to be created is to begin at the top. In the R.C.M.P.’s case, William Elliott will have to “walk the walk” by going beyond the creation of an internal disclosure policy or the appointment of a policy watchdog.
Every decision a C.E.O., or manager, or Commissioner of the R.C.M.P. makes affects the employees’ view of, and trust in, that person. It takes many years for an organizational leader to establish credibility and trust amongst the employees (and only a moment to lose it). At every opportunity, the executives must support and encourage individuals to make disclosures of questionable practices.
An organization which is open to critical thinkers, which is fueled by a “what if?” culture, and which has a relationship of trust between employees and leaders is one in which employees will speak up about questionable business practices. In a nice bit of irony, those are also the organizations which are the least likely to need those sorts of internal disclosures in the first place.
Robert Smithson is a partner at Pushor Mitchell LLP in Kelowna practicing exclusively in the area of labour and employment law. For more information about his practice, log onto