Sometimes silence is the best approach for employees who spot suspicious or unethical behavior at work, a recently published paper from Washington State University indicates.

By keeping their initial concerns quiet, would-be whistleblowers gain time to gather facts, verify information, assemble like-minded allies and reduce the risk of retaliation for speaking up, according to the paper published in the Academy of Management Perspectives.

“Sometimes you shouldn’t speak up, or at least not right away,” said Tom Tripp, professor of management and senior associate dean for academic affairs at WSU’s Carson College of Business, who coauthored the paper.

“People often don’t have all the facts,” Tripp said. “They may be hearing gossip, which is often wrong. Or maybe they’ve only heard one side of a complicated story. It makes sense to slow down and gather the facts before voicing your concerns.”

Even the federal whistleblower waited three weeks before reporting alleged improprieties in President Donald Trump’s July 25 phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, Tripp noted.

“For something this big in the era of social media, three weeks is a long time,” he said.

Based on what is publicly known, the whistleblower didn’t have first-hand knowledge of the phone call. Tripp said the whistleblower appeared to have spent several weeks gathering information before filing the complaint that accused the president of “quid pro quo” in his dealings with Ukraine. The apparent deliberation increased the credibility of the complaint, helped ensure that it was made public and may have helped shield the whistleblower’s identity, he said.

Tripp worked with collaborators from Georgetown University, University of Cambridge, National University of Singapore and KU Leuven University in Belgium. They examined previous studies on whistleblowing and workplace behavior to arrive at their conclusions. A summary of their work was among the Academy of Management Perspectives’ most popular articles in 2019.

Using silence to confront misbehavior

Most academic research on ethics is critical of employees who stay silent when they observe wrongdoing or destructive leadership in the workplace, Tripp said. People are often encourage to speak up quickly.

An often-cited example occurred at Volkswagen. When employees raised concerns about software that temporarily reduced emissions during federal vehicle testing, supervisors asked them to continue the fraudulent activity, and some even destroyed evidence.

That’s a destructive example of employees staying silent, Tripp said. The deception eventually became public, and Volkswagen paid billions of dollars in settlements.

“I’m not advocating inaction. If something looks bad, you should check it out,” Tripp said. But “unless your office is literally on fire, it’s better to slow down.”

The value of fair grievance processes

Tripp said the paper underscores the importance of having fair processes for workers to report unethical behavior or air grievances. If the system is trusted, employees will be more likely to use the official process.

If workers feel powerless to act, their frustration can veer into unhealthy channels, said Tripp, who also studies workplace revenge. Employees may stay silent in an effort to confuse or disorient destructive leaders – who never know if or when employees will speak out.

“You want to have an environment that allows people who see problems to speak up,” Tripp said. “You don’t want the complaints to go underground or to not get reported.”

For employees, the paper offers strategies for calling attention to workplace problems, particularly when the personal cost can be high. Forming a coalition to speak out collectively reduces the risks associated with being a lone voice.

“There is a long sad, history with whistleblowers in that they are often retaliated against – even those who are vindicated and considered heroes by the public,” Tripp said. “They aren’t trusted and often have trouble finding work in the future.”

Media contacts:

  • Tom Tripp, professor of management and senior associate dean for academic affairs, Carson College of Business, 360-546-9754, ttripp@wsu.edu
  • Becky Kramer, communications manager, Carson College of Business, 509-335-3977, becky.kramer@wsu.edu