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July/August 2013 Issue

Ethical Dimensions of Social Work Whistleblowing
By Lindsey Getz
Social Work Today
Vol. 13 No. 4 P. 12

More organizations are putting whistleblowing policies in place, but social work’s protocols are in their infancy and must grow to reflect the profession’s unique ethical concerns.

The term “whistleblower” likely brings to mind famous cases surrounding highly publicized criminal acts, such as Sherron Watkins exposing Enron’s fraudulent stock inflation or even “Deep Throat” revealing details that brought to light the Watergate scandal.

These are major cases involving elaborate trials and major media attention, but that’s not how everyday whistleblowing occurs. Although the wrongdoing taking place in various workplaces, agencies, and organizations may not constitute large-scale criminal acts, they still pose significant challenges to the potential whistleblower who may feel a moral obligation to report what he or she has witnessed.

How often does wrongdoing take place and when does someone know it’s appropriate to blow the whistle? There are numerous schools of thought in this area, though social workers could use education on the topic, particularly because whistleblowing in the social work field poses unique challenges.

Whistleblowing Basics
Nearly every practitioner has encountered wrongdoing, which can include administrative fraud, an impaired colleague, or client mistreatment. In fact, research from the Washington, D.C.-based Ethics Resource Center (ERC) has found that 45% of U.S. workers observe some kind of wrongdoing in a given year. “If almost half of the workforce is observing misconduct at least once in a year, then it’s safe to say that everyone will eventually be faced with this situation,” says Patricia Harned, PhD, ERC president. “It’s just part of being employed. You’re going to observe some kind of misconduct on the job. One of the biggest challenges is having to figure out what to do after you’ve observed it.”

In the past, whistleblowing generally was associated with going outside the primary workplace to report wrongdoing, characterized by employees going to local law enforcement, government agencies, or even the media to expose misconduct within a company.

While some whistleblowers do take that course of action, the truth is that most do not. Findings from the ERC show that whistleblowers almost always make some effort to root out the wrongdoing internally before going outside the organization with their concerns. In fact, only 2% of employees go solely outside of their companies to report misconduct.

As more organizations become aware of the advantages of encouraging employees to report misconduct internally, many have established hotlines where whistleblowers can report something they witnessed. These hotlines often allow individuals to anonymously give the name of the person they believe is doing wrong without revealing their own name, though anonymity makes an investigation harder. It’s all in an effort to keep reports internal and help make employees comfortable with the idea of coming forward.

However, David Gebler, a values-based business ethics expert and president of the Skout Group, says that progressive companies are being proactive instead of reactive and launching helplines as opposed to just hotlines. “A helpline would be a line you could call beforehand and you could say, ‘I’m confused about whether I’m allowed to do X,’” explains Gebler, who also authored the book The 3 Power Values: How Commitment, Integrity, and Transparency Clear the Roadblocks to Performance. “This is a very proactive approach that allows employees to actually call about a potential wrongdoing before it happens and get critical advice.”

Even with supports in place, whistleblowers still face challenges. Jonathan M. Lukens, MSW, MBE, PhD, an assistant professor in the School of Social Work at Salem State University in Massachusetts, says there are quite a few challenges or fears that whistleblowers may need to overcome before stepping forward. For instance, reporting a coworker may undermine the trust of other coworkers, destroying friendships and posing a risk to professional standing.

Uncertainty about procedures and protections also lurks with whistleblowing but is an area that employers can address. “A whistleblowing procedure should be part of an agency’s written policies and should include a clear description of employee protections, the steps one takes to report a concern, and even what constitutes a reasonable concern,” Lukens says.

The fear of retaliation also is a barrier. “Fear of firing or retribution is a major concern and probably stops a lot of social workers, especially when the concern involves a supervisor or agency director,” Lukens adds.

But Marcia Miceli, DBA, MBA, a professor of management in Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business and coauthor of Whistle-Blowing in Organizations and Blowing the Whistle, points to some evidence that fear of retaliation may be unwarranted: “A recent study by the ERC shows that member organizations are working to reduce fears of retaliation. At the same time, we do still know of cases where a whistleblower has experienced negative career outcomes. So a challenge is to assess as accurately as possible how a complaint may be received and if there are multiple channels for reporting to identify the ones that will be most effective and protective of the whistleblower.”

Whistleblowing Among Social Workers
While many organizations are putting whistleblowing policies and procedures in place, this is an area where the social work field may potentially be lacking. “In my experience, most human service and social service organizations do not have explicit protocols or guidelines to address whistleblowing issues,” says Frederic G. Reamer, PhD, a prominent ethicist and a professor of social work at Rhode Island College. “I think they’d be well served to develop reasonable protocols and guidelines, not in an effort to encourage snitching, but rather to acknowledge that in any organization there is the possibility of ethical misconduct that must be brought to the attention of responsible administrators.”

For the first time in the profession’s history, the NASW Code of Ethics does include several standards that obligate social workers to address unethical conduct in a responsible way, Reamer adds. “Sometimes this requires social workers to disclose their concerns to people who are in positions of authority.”

But this certainly isn’t always easy to do. In any field there’s some level of stigma attached to the act of whistleblowing. However, in social work there are other challenges that pose barriers, such as the fact that social workers are potentially too compassionate to blow the whistle on a colleague. “For instance, if you ask social workers if they think it is OK to ‘bend the truth’ in order to get better services for a client, many will say yes, and many will admit to doing it,” Lukens says. “Technically, that’s a violation. In addition, the impulse of many social workers is, of course, to be helpful and empathetic. This impulse may prompt some not to take action on an impaired colleague, for instance, when it is in fact warranted. This will to be helpful and understanding potentially confuses the issue of to whom we are primarily responsible: the agency or the client.”

Reamer says this is another example of the boundary problems social workers frequently face as a result of trying to help people. That’s why social workers have been known to loan money, give gifts, or do other inappropriate favors for clients. “Many times a social worker’s wrongdoing arises out of altruistic instincts,” Reamer says. “These are well-meaning social workers who are bending or even breaking rules in order to help their client. In one respect this may seem magnanimous but, in reality, engaging in rule bending or breaking can constitute ethical misconduct.”

However, that altruistic intent makes it difficult for colleagues to report what they’ve witnessed. “Blowing the whistle seems to go against the grain in a helping profession,” Reamer says. “As social workers, we may have to work harder than members of other professions to acknowledge and confront ethical misconduct that crosses our path.”

Black, White, and Many Shades of Gray
Of course, not every action is worthy of whistleblowing in the first place. “Few actions are always appropriate to report, and the duty to blow the whistle on a colleague or institution is highly context dependent,” says Dominic A. Sisti, PhD, director of The Scattergood Program for Applied Ethics of Behavioral Healthcare in the department of medical ethics and health policy at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine. “A basic question should be: Are clients/patients being seriously harmed? If the answer is yes, social workers have an ethical duty to disclose the harm, even if that means implicating a colleague’s misconduct, negligence, impairment, or incompetence.”

The issue of whether to blow the whistle is rarely black and white, Reamer adds. In fact, he says most whistleblowing situations fall into one of “many shades of gray.” Once in a while there may be a no-brainer, such as a social worker engaging in sexual misconduct with a client, but it’s quite often that the wrongdoing falls into a gray area, he says.

While social workers may find it easier to blow the whistle in black and white cases, they also need to learn when and how to blow the whistle when the misconduct is not easily defined. Reamer believes that an effort to understand when to report misconduct should be incorporated into social work education. “If we’re going to enhance the quality of education in academia and in continuing education, then we need to share with students and social workers some good case studies that pose very difficult choices on whistleblowing,” Reamer says. “Then we need to share the conceptual framework that includes standards in the current Code of Ethics regarding disclosure of ethical misconduct as well as frameworks developed by ethicists to help practitioners make difficult decisions regarding whistleblowing.”

Reamer teaches the following key points that should be considered before the whistle is even blown:

Severity: Factor in the severity of the harm and the misconduct. Circumstances that involve severe harm are more compelling than those that do not.

Quality of the evidence: If there is no strong or compelling evidence of wrongdoing, employees may want to postpone blowing the whistle.

Impact: Consider the potential impact that whistleblowing will have on colleagues, employers, or even one’s career. This is not a reason to avoid blowing the whistle but definitely something to consider before doing so—even just to be prepared for the consequences.

Your motivation: Whistleblowers must consider the motivation for blowing the whistle. Do they truly believe they have a moral obligation to report this or is the whistleblowing motivated by self-interest, such as being angry with someone and seeking retaliation?

Viability of reasonable alternatives: Before employees go full force with whistleblowing, they should think about whether there’s a way to address the issues in a quieter and more constructive way. Are these alternatives reasonable and feasible?

In questioning motives, it’s also important to consider why someone may not address the wrongdoing directly with the person who committed it. “If you think a colleague is doing something wrong, why wouldn’t you talk to them about it first?” Gebler asks. “Your answer to that question may reveal your true motives. While it takes guts, often the best first step is to tell the person what you believe you witnessed. There are always ways to frame it, such as ‘David, you’re new so you may not know that you filled out that form incorrectly.’ In this way you create a dialogue rather than going directly into reporting mode.”

Reamer says the Code of Ethics addresses this in standard 2.11c: “Social workers who believe that a colleague has acted unethically should seek resolution by discussing their concerns with the colleague when feasible and when such discussion is likely to be productive.”

Of course, addressing the employee is not always a reasonable course of action or may not ultimately be productive. Standard 2.11d goes on to say, “When necessary, social workers who believe that a colleague has acted unethically should take action through appropriate formal channels [such as contacting a state licensing board or regulatory body, a NASW committee on inquiry, or other professional ethics committees].”

As social workers make the final decision whether to blow the whistle, it’s advised that legal counsel first should be sought in any case where criminal activity has taken place or there is a strong possibility of some form of retribution. Though there’s still a long way to go in educating social workers on whistleblowing, in general, it does seem that it’s being given more attention. That also helps ensure the whistleblower has a safe environment to come forward and report wrongdoing. “In general, I do believe we have a greater awareness of the need for whistleblower protections, so I think that workplaces address this better, as do many state and federal laws,” Lukens says.

“As with so many difficult ethical decisions, whistleblowing decisions often reduce to a matter of conscience,” Reamer adds. “There are no simple formulas that social workers can use to determine what they ought to do. The answer is often a product of extraordinarily difficult reflection and soul searching. Still, more education on the issue is at least likely to make that process better defined.”

— Lindsey Getz is a freelance writer based in Royersford, PA, and a frequent contributor to Social Work Today.