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Norman Pickavance
Former HR & Comms Director at Morrisons and guest blogger at The Work Foundation
Norman  Pickavance

Edward Snowden and the age of the whistleblower. A wake up call for all CEOs?

Authors: Norman Pickavance Norman Pickavance, former HR and Comms Director at Morrison's

16 July 2013

Recent weeks have witnessed the humbling of President Obama, trying to repair the damage caused by spying revelations and salvage his reputation for liberal values amongst his followers. These chaotic events hold lessons for leaders everywhere.

Edward Snowden is a civilian, an ordinary employee, holding a relatively junior position in the US Government. He says that he was doing the right thing by exposing the “unethical practices” of the US government and helping to hold them to account. He says that what he has done was an act of conscience, from which no one has been hurt.

You may or may not agree with Snowden over what he has done, but every day that the net closes in around him, his media profile grows.  It highlights that ordinary people do still have the ability to make those in power sit up and take notice, and his case is resonating particularly with young people who share a growing disillusionment with all aspects of authority and establishment.

The definitive British Social Attitudes survey (1983-2010), shows that such lack of trust is an increasingly common experience for today's young adults, who feel far less connected to society than previous generations, disengaged from traditional politics and disempowered in the workplace.

It would be wrong however to assume that they don’t care. They may not, like their grandparents, be imagining any collective fight back, but they are talking to their friends through social media about what’s wrong , looking to do the right thing in their personal lives and are generally plotting individual escape.

Walk through any office and you will see these highly educated young people, increasingly performing lower skilled jobs than they would have hoped for, with fewer career prospects, and on some kind of ‘flexible’ non-permanent contract. These young people are different. Bright, capable, and connected to everyone through twitter, they have a strong moral compass which doesn’t ‘get’ the corporate mantra (‘what’s right for the company must be good for society)’.

It is this combination of disengagement, access, technology and moral cause that has created a new and powerful force. For this group, taking a photo, and getting comments online no longer requires much effort.

So the ‘Snowden’ incident may well mark a tipping point, where being a whistleblower becomes a ‘badge of honour’, where tweeting corporate revelations to the press, a way of being heard, and telling everyone about dodgy supply chains, questionable accounting or unethical employment practices, a public duty. The Snowden whistleblower factor shows just how much damage can be wrought on the reputation of any organisation and the senior leaders in them, through the focused action of one individual.

Big companies know that these tech savvy youngsters already tweet friends about the ‘goings on’ in their offices, and try to manage it as part of the general background noise in the twitter-sphere. However some companies are more worried about the risks of having their dirty washing exposed, and have made such acts disciplinary offences. More forward looking organisations have tried to manage disenchantment by putting in place their own confidential whistle-blowing phone numbers, but low take up rates indicate what staff really think.

There is a dawning recognition amongst a small group of CEOs that such responses are inadequate and that their leadership approach may need to fundamentally change. But how? Engagement surveys, values statements and social responsibility initiatives only highlight the gap between what is said and what is done in practice. The fact remains that few organisations make it easy for people to speak truth to those in power, to voice their concerns and to be engaged in real dialogue about the future.

Edward Snowden’s actions show just how much disruptive influence one person can now have. If he is the tip of an iceberg then organisations of all kinds now need to think differently about their business practices and the way they engage with their people. The era of the Corporate Whistleblower has arrived, and that may just be a good thing.


Comments in Chronological Order (Total 9 Comments)

Steve Hearsum

14 Aug 2013 4:53PM

Interesting post. And the challenge is that organisations are almost universally ill equipped to deal with whistleblowers because they rarely contract for how they want to handle undiscussable issues, both systemically and relationally, or how to manage the inevitability of double binds i.e. the classic Catch 22 that invariably comes up for people when faced with a choice between speaking a truth about a practice they believe is 'wrong' and the personal consequences (real or imagined).

For me, the conversation I would like to open up with CEOs is around how and why it is that they fear the truth, and the pattern of scape-goating that occurs post the intervention of a whistle blower. Too many people who do have the courage then find themselves ostracised by their employer and other organisations when they seek to find further employment. That says that the pattern that is embedded in organisations is one that simply mirrors what is happening outside: in human systems, we say we want the truth, but our actions tell another story.



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