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April 9, 2014 Volume 14, Issue 15
 
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On Snitching at Work: Part II

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Reporting violations of laws, policies, regulations, or ethics to authorities at work can expose you to the risk of retribution. That's why the reporting decision must consider the need for safety.
Rachel Hoffman, for whom Florida's Rachel's Law is named

Rachel Hoffman (1984-2008), for whom Florida's Rachel's Law is named. Ms. Hoffman, a graduate of Florida State University, was 23 years old when she was murdered while acting as a police informant during a drug sting. She had been under drug court supervision for possession of less than one ounce of marijuana, which was discovered during a traffic stop in 2007. In 2008, a search of her apartment uncovered four ounces of marijuana and four ecstasy pills. To avoid a prison sentence, she agreed to become an informant and to play a role in a sting operation. She was clearly over her head, and the sting violated department policy on several gounds. Moreover, her handlers lost track of her during the operation. She was found dead two days later. The incident led to adoption of Rachel's Law, which regulates police responsibility for informants' safety.

If your employer has written policies governing the handling of reports of violations of laws, policies, procedures, and ethics, it is rare indeed. Nevertheless, such policies are needed. Without the protection such policies provide, reporting transgressions is a risky step, to be undertaken only after serious contemplation of those risks.

More about the case of Rachel Hoffman. Photo courtesy bluelight.org.

When considering whether or not to report a transgression — a violation of law, policy, procedure, or ethics — there is more to ponder than right and wrong. Your own safety, in terms of career, position, and even life and limb, are also factors.

Here are four questions to consider. As in Part I, we use the term reporter for the person making the report, authority for the person receiving the report, and accused for the person whom the reporter believes has transgressed.

Will the authority protect the reporter's identity?
Some report recipients can be negligent about protecting the reporter's identity. Some actually feel obliged to disclose the reporter's identity to the accused.
Unless the authority is known in advance to care about protecting the reporter's identity, reporting offenses is dangerous business. Still, if failing to report is even more dangerous, the authority's behavior might not be an issue.
Can the reporter's identity remain private?
Even if the authority wants to protect the reporter's identity, investigators and administrative personnel with access to the report might be less fastidious than the authority about protecting the reporter's identity.
Following the pattern set by some legal frameworks, some people believe that those accused by reporters have a right to confront their "accusers." Whether this concept applies in the organizational context is debatable at best. In any case, if the investigating apparatus is "leaky," or if the accused has access to the report and the reporter's identity, making a report can be risky unless the organization provides formal protection for reporters.
Are the reporter and accused at odds?
Even if the reporter's identity is protected, the accused sometimes seeks revenge against people the accused suspects of being the reporter. If the reporter and the accused are already at odds for any reason, the accused might take action against the reporter, even without conclusive proof of the reporter's identity.
This is one of the Even if the reporter's identity is
protected, the accused sometimes
seeks revenge against people
the accused suspects of
being the reporter
many reasons to be on good terms — or at least, not bad terms — with everyone. Being at odds with someone who transgresses can create ethical quandaries.
Will the accused (or someone else) seek retribution?
Out of anger or to prevent further reports, the accused sometimes seeks retribution for reports. And if others, such as the supervisor of the accused, are also implicated in the allegations, they too might seek retribution.
Even if your identity is protected, the accused sometimes does guess correctly who made the report. And sometimes the accused seeks retribution against anyone who could have made the report, "just to be sure."

If you expect to be targeted by the accused even if someone else is the reporter, reporting might well be your best option. With respect to the accused, you're no worse off than keeping silent; and with respect to the authority, you've done your part to keep the organization honest. First in this series  Go to top  Top  Next issue: Design Errors and Groupthink  Next Issue
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