Can We Protect Those Who Confront Mean Men?

We’re all privy to the dramas of mean men as they unfold in the media, but what about when those offenses happen closer to home? What if it’s you or one of your colleagues suffering at the hands of a mean boss? How do you call them on it . . . and who do you call? What may be the consequences of blowing the whistle? The intricacies of whistleblower protection in the United States came to the public’s attention in 2002, when the exceedingly bad behavior of a group of rogue top executives at Enron begat the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002. This act provides protection to employees who decide to blow the whistle when they have evidence of illegal conduct.

Whistleblower legislation is not new. The Whistleblower Protection Act of 1989 covers federal whistleblowers; the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 covers employees of publicly owned corporations; and in 2014, protection was significantly widened by the US Supreme Court to include private corporations functioning as subcontractors to publicly owned firms.

Still, all this legalese provides little comfort to the individual who is working in an organization that fails to meet these criteria for protection.

The ethics violations that are most frequently reported are not confined to obviously illegal acts such as financial fraud or safety violations. The Ethics Resource Center notes in its 2011 National Business Ethics Survey that the top unethical workplace behavior cited was misuse of company time. The second and third most frequent forms of misconduct reported were abusive behavior and lying to employees.

Patricia Harned, the center’s president, says that although abuse is not often labeled unethical, it is the number one reason people leave their jobs.

It gets worse.

Whistleblowing is on the rise, but so is retaliation. According to the Ethics Resource Center’s report, more than one-fifth of employees interviewed—two times as many as reported in 2007—said they had experienced negative consequences for reporting workplace misconduct. Some were simply given the cold shoulder, while others were passed over for promotion.

And it gets worse still: in 2011, 31 percent of whistleblowers said they received physical threats when outed, compared to 4 percent in 2009.

Retaliation against whistleblowers doesn’t just threaten individuals: it threatens our culture. To curb this egregious behavior, we must attempt to do all of the following simultaneously:

  • create a system and a process that fosters the exposure of abusive behavior
  • protect the whistleblower
  • ensure that the information gets to the proper authorities

One major obstacle to employees of entrepreneur-driven firms safely and securely naming or ousting mean men is that they have no “big law” backing. Many of these firms lack a strong internal system of checks and balances, and higher-ups simply don’t know what’s going on day to day in the ranks. In these cases, implementation of a 360-degree review or upward review process, where employees rate their managers, can help.

In 2013, I was asked to consult for an aggressive sales-driven firm with a mean entrepreneur at the helm. This man hoarded as much control as possible, and in the arrogant style typical of so many mean men, he believed he couldn’t lose.

A few years earlier, he had created a board that he planned to use whenever he needed to. Believing that his new board members would be happy simply to take a directorship fee and add some gravitas to meetings, he was shaken to discover that, in fact, they had a very low tolerance for behavior that could damage their company.

When word about his toxicity began to trickle in from reliable sources, action was taken. I helped set up a full management assessment process, and the company swiftly kicked this individual to the curb. Nobody has looked back since.

Another organization I worked with recently was founded by a brilliant entrepreneur who many considered demonically possessed by the will to achieve. He worked nonstop in a cutthroat industry, and yet, unlike our arrogant control freak above, this man expected and fostered civility. He promoted the notion that if you treat employees with respect, they’ll do their best.

This man wasn’t threatened by the idea of implementing a system of checks and balances; in fact, he invited me to create one that was anchored in the values he aspired to for his firm. Employees participated enthusiastically because they felt safe and empowered. The culture quickly became even healthier, with everyone, literally, reaping greater net profit.

There is no singular silver bullet to address mean men who are in positions of power. Context-specific solutions work, but they must be organization-specific and leadership-specific as well. Clarity about the values that undergird the firm’s culture, along with a zeal for actually instilling those values, must exist. Consequences for breaching civility must be meaningful in order to bring about cultural change.

Leaders who tend not to play well with others tend to play even worse when cornered or exposed. And according to the numbers above, these leaders are getting away with committing abuse upon abuse now more than ever before—despite whistleblowing legislation and the increased public awareness of bullying.

Setting up better internal systems of checks and balances will help ensure that whistleblowers do report. How can we expect brave whistleblowers to put their careers—and sometimes even their well-being—on the line if we don’t have their backs?

The deeper issue here, however, is the culture that permits these abuses to run rampant to begin with. When mean men are excused for egregious behavior by their boards as long as they have a solid bottom line, when they’re given a pass from the media for as long as their success holds, and when we explain them away as fragile, emotional geniuses, we’re giving them the green light to treat people however they see fit. And we all need to blow the whistle on that.