26 August 2010

The View From Taft, BusinessWorld

When I was growing up, one of the worst things to be called was a sumbongero or chu-chu (“squealer”). There was an unwritten rule that whatever objectionable thing one experienced or knew about was best dealt with privately among those directly concerned. I dealt with school bullies this way; silently suffering the frequent harassment and occasional roughing up without my teachers or elders ever finding out. Given such a code of silence, the worst practices continued under the noses of adults who should have known. School bullying was to be expected. That was simply the way things were.

Now that I'm much older, I find that conspiracies of silence are common among adults, too. Office workers don't report free-riding co-workers. (Neither do my MBA students, who explain that it's less trouble just doing the work themselves and getting a good grade than confronting a non-performing group-mate and risking friction.) Employees do not complain through official channels about abusive bosses. And practically no one reports corrupt activity to responsible parties. As a result, abuse of power and shakedowns are to be expected. That is simply the way things are.

But every now and then, sumbongeros, technically referred to as whistle-blowers, burst onto the national scene, with telling effect. Chavit Singson squealed on former President Erap's jueteng take. The revelations triggered the impeachment case against Estrada and the latter’s eventual replacement by President Arroyo. Jun Lozada, for his part, complained about the enormous kickbacks (exceeding his infamous "permissible zone") being demanded from the NBN-ZTE deal. The prolonged and televised hearings on the issue contributed to Arroyo's trust rating spiralling downwards, never to recover.

Singson and Lozada were both intimately familiar with the goings-on about which they blew the whistle. They were, by their own admission, participants in the criminal activities they reported to the public. Their whistle-blowing was triggered by what they feared were threats to their lives. One wonders what could have happened if they never felt threatened enough. Would they have blown the whistle? We may never know but Lozada professed a more noble purpose for his revelations: ''so that others would no longer be forced to lie and continue committing sins before God and country because of me.''

Is public whistle-blowing the only option when confronted by unethical organizational behavior? Not really. Personal advocacy and dialogue are valid options. But convincing people to change their erring ways is an extremely difficult, if not personally dangerous, task. It takes much skill, time and patience. It also assumes that people can be reasoned with. Enron Vice President Sherron Watkins and Vice Chairman Clifford Baxter tried to reason with President Lay and Skilling, respectively, to stop the questionable accounting practices which eventually caused the collapse of the energy trading company. Neither Watkins nor Baxter succeeded in stopping the accounting fraud at Enron. Time Magazine named Watkins one of its three Persons of the Year (all whistle-blowers) in 2002 but she has been vilified in some quarters. Baxter was found dead, ostensibly by suicide, shortly after receiving a subpoena from a Senate committee investigating Enron and its accounting firm, Arthur Andersen.

Wrongful practices may be so embedded in an organization's culture that the best meaning leaders are not able to make a real dent. The hazing problem in fraternities is a good example of this. Recent pronouncements of fraternity leaders and illustrious alumni – after another hazing-related fatality -- offer little assurance that the senseless loss of young lives will ever stop. Is it possible that public whistle-blowing can make a positive difference when dealing with such persistent harmful behavior? I think so, with qualifications.

Whistle-blowing to the media is now easier than ever since most television and radio talk show hosts welcome real-time, and often anonymous, text and social network reports. The recent surfacing in the media of a cell phone video of what appears to be a police chief torturing a suspect is a dramatic example of how technology can aid whistle-blowers. But perhaps whistle-blowing to the media has become too easy. We must remember that the ease of broadcasting an allegation through the mass media may equal the ease of unfairly ruining a hard-earned reputation and career. The public whistle-blower should make sure he or she has the facts straight as surely as a media journalist has the duty to do basic fact checking before releasing allegations to the public as news.

Moral regeneration becomes possible when knowledgeable people take personal responsibility for correcting ethical wrongs within organizations. Particularly when the potential damage is sufficiently large and perpetrators are incorrigible, public whistle-blowing may be a justified step. But it must always be done prudently.

Dr. Benito Teehankee is an associate professor in the College of Business of De La Salle University. His e-mail address is teehankeeb@yahoo.com.