Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Long live whistleblowers

It is an unfortunate indictment against businesses, governments and their agencies generally, that whistleblowers exist at all. In fact, sometimes it has become necessary to rely on ‘whistleblowers’ for the truth. They are the ones who risk a great deal to expose the corruption, fraud or other criminal or unethical activity that is present in some form or another.

It is also an unfortunate trait of the human condition, that any activity in relation to the receipt of money, or to the acquisition of power, or positions of influence, are the most frequent targets for unethical and criminal conduct. This is where whistleblowers come into their own.

But why are ‘whistle blowers’ always treated harshly by those upon whom the whistle has been blown? It is because people in positions of authority, in business or government, will justify (to themselves) their questionable actions in any way possible, rather than face the consequences of a straight forward acceptance of their activities. They do not want to accept that what may be divulged is actually a reflection of who they are. Such people will blame their, alleged, abuse as a child; or poverty; or diminished responsibility brought about by the effects of alcohol, or drugs; or peer pressure, anything, rather than accept personal responsibility. Businesses or governments caught out often blame the media for misrepresentation; or being quoted out of context.

It is, however, natural to tell the truth. It is a relief to tell the truth. When we admit our actions to ourselves, or family, or friends, or business associates and we ‘come clean’ regarding something we have done; something we are not very proud about, we feel relief. Non-acceptance of personal responsibility is stressful.

It is a fact that ethics applies to every situation relating to human conduct, every walk of life, and as with all aspects of life and human conduct, there are rules which apply. The basis of all rules is the application of certain (usually minimum) standards. These are to ensure fairness between opposing views; to ensure that no one obtains unfair advantage by using illegal or under hand means, such as when a stockbroker uses privileged information to gain unfair personal advantage.

We need to be totally familiar with the subject and the Rules and Regulations which apply. We have to live them. The rules or regulations must be applied and practised until they become second nature. This is proven time and again.

So it is with ethics.

All corruption, all fraud, all criminal and unethical behaviour is behaviour that should not, indeed need never occur, if we, all of us, took some time to reflect on our actions and the motives which prompted them. The thing is we all know what is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’; it is an inherent faculty. It is, however, very often so overlaid with habits and ideas about ourselves that it is difficult to discriminate or to correctly choose a course of action. We are, however, all uncomfortable when we have made a ‘wrong’ choice and contented when we have made a ‘right’ choice. It is also a fact that we are all more comfortable dealing with ethical people, and are less prone to stress when we ourselves behave in an ethical manner. Ethics seems right.

Long live whistleblowers – they hold the torch of honesty, integrity and ethical conduct.

William Shakespeare has many quotable passages, and this one from Hamlet (Act 1, Sc. III) is certainly apt, when Polonius says:

“This above all: to thine own self be true,

And it must follow, as the night the day,

Thou canst not then be false to any man.”

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