Psych Services: Accountability in us-versus-them and whistleblowing scenarios

Lisa Garmezy

A friend vented to me recently about catching two of her favorite art students smoking marijuana close to her high school classroom. She was angry at their use of weed, and perhaps angrier that they might have mistakenly thought she wouldn’t report them to the administration.

At work, when a colleague’s behavior crosses a grim line, a lot of people feel they have a choice about whether to take action. Some employees opt to confront the other person one-on-one, hoping this will solve the problem. Let’s break down how and why folks decide to blow the whistle on wrongdoing when the direct approach fails, and why it’s so easy to let unethical behavior slide.

Some workplace issues—waste and safety violations—simply tend not to get reported. In other situations, people struggle to judge how bad the behavior really is. Taking $100 in free services is not viewed the same as taking $1000. Minor corruption may be viewed as a fact of life in the big city.

Co-workers tend to perceive the gradual breakdown of ethical behavior, e.g., the officer on patrol who spends less and less time actually performing his duties, as less significant than the sudden unexpected violation, for example, when a promising rookie accepts a bribe.

 The Decision

Personal morality influences whistle-blowing—but less than you might think. In the general population, most of us see ourselves as moral people but most of us won’t get involved. Only one person in ten is likely to refuse a supervisor’s request to commit a minor unethical act, a 2012 study showed.

Granted, police officers probably start their careers with higher moral standards than the general public. Then the “us-versus-them” mentality can get distorted into the sense that “their” rules do not apply to police officers.

Most cops are comfortable taking action but some are simply more passive, perhaps thinking justice will be served without their intervention. The protection of high status on the job and job security—officers have the latter if not the former—makes reporting more likely.

But “breaking ranks” is viewed with suspicion in law enforcement. Police departments value loyalty and unity. How well you know the person will determine whether turning him or her in feels like a betrayal and a wrong act in itself. In any job, people are concerned about damaging relationships and harming their own careers if they spill the beans. In policing or the military, without back-up, your life may be at risk.

If you believe the organization won’t act, or won’t act fairly, whistle-blowing isn’t worth the risks of rejection by peers or retaliation by supervisors. In the Marine Corps, for example, raising an alarm about extensive violations of policy related to hazing could seem futile, if enough people in authority embrace it as part of the culture. Recently three senior Marines were fired, however, for abusing recruits.

People also may hesitate to act because they wish to avoid negative publicity or other fallout for the organization involved. Cops who break the rules draw media attention and erode public trust. None of us wants to see another headline about what HPD got wrong.

 The Victim

Surprisingly, people are discouraged from acting by . . . competence. When an employee perceives his or her boss as ethical and effective, the employee is happy to regard his peers’ violations as the supervisor’s problem.

To understand further how accountability matters, recall Kitty Genovese, the woman who was raped and murdered in 1964 in a New York City courtyard while 38 people in surrounding apartments seemed to ignore the attack. Her tragedy taught us that when responsibility is spread out, and no one individual is clearly accountable, it’s easier to look away. When an entire shift—or station—is aware of a problem, no one may feel the burden of having to act.

After Genovese’s killer died in prison earlier this year, the press revisited her story. The legend that people in the apartments above turned on lights but did nothing to aid her proved not to be entirely true. Two calls were made to the police, although help arrived too late. A neighbor came down to offer assistance, and according to the New York Times, “cradled the dying victim in her arms.” Genovese’s live-in girlfriend slept through the whole thing.

That night, neighbors thought they heard a lover’s quarrel or argument between drunks. Like the residents of that Queens neighborhood, we often see what we expect to see and hear what we expect to hear.

Bias, Elections, and a Frog

It’s called confirmation bias: We tend to notice or remember information that confirms our beliefs, and tune out information that opposes them.

Elections are a wonderful example. Having chosen the lesser of two evils, we selectively pay attention to information that confirms that our candidate is better. We ignore or remember less readily any contradictory information we come across.

Whistleblowers run smack up against confirmation bias. Officers debating speaking out probably start with the premise that, “Sam’s doing a decent job, overall.” They notice behavior that confirms this, overlooking actions that show he isn’t doing a decent job, not really—sometimes until great harm is done to the integrity and reputation of the department.

Gradual acceptance of what used to be unacceptable is reminiscent of the frog who if dropped into boiling water hops out, but if immersed in water which heats up gradually, gets boiled to death. Except in this case what is killed is a part of you that you never wanted to lose.