When the Whistle Blows, a Lot Depends on Who Does the Blowing

by Andrew Leigh, Featured Contributor

WHAT A WORLD of difference between blowing the whistle on your company, and when the company blows the whistle on you!

In the case of Courtland Kelley of GM, highlighting and pursuing an unethical production practice—a failing starter motor putting lives at risk–led to a career disaster. [1]

WhistleSide-lined, denigrated, and ultimately ejected like some invasive virus, his valiant efforts to rectify a perceived wrong failed. He was left bruised, bitter and poorer as a result.

In contrast, American Apparel has blown the whistle on its founder Dov Charney over alleged misconduct. Long running accusations of financial mismanagement and sexual harassment have triggered a Board response which many observer say was long overdue.[2]

While Kelley ended up spending $20,000 of his own money to defend himself from GMs aggressive tactics, Mr Charney is wealthy enough to sue for damages which he hopefully estimates could cost his company over $20 million.

Apart from losing their jobs for behaviour their companies deemed inappropriate, the two men have little in common. Yet they are symptomatic of a wider issue that has led their careers to hit a brick wall.

In search of humane cultures

Both cases highlight the need for large organisations to learn to create humane cultures. These treat people with respect and differences are tolerated, regardless of status and role.

An inclusive or humane workplace is

“An environment where everyone is treated with dignity and respect, where the talents and skills of different groups are valued, and where productivity and customer service improves because the workforce is happier, more motivated and more aware of the benefits that inclusion can bring.”[3]

Contrast this for example, with working for the Harley Davidson Company where the pay rate is the highest in its hometown of Milwaukee. But according to the revealing web site Glass Door the company:

“…never treat you likethics businesse an individual, with individual talents. They might never even try to get to know you personally. They will likely give you no personal touch whatsoever- no communication, no caring or understanding nature. They want workers who do the work, shut their mouths, and they do not want to speak to you unless you are acting up for them. They want machines, not people.”[4]

Dehumanising of work is a general problem across the globe. Increasingly it features in cases where immoral or unethical behaviour has been revealed.

Driving dehumanisation are ever-tougher competition, firms over focused on ends rather than means, command and control methods of managing, technology, and work with lack of meaning to those who must do it.

The symptoms are all around us in the form of stress, and high levels of employee disengagement. Generation Y for example, is the most disengaged, and over half (62%) say they are unhappy with their jobs.

Having a humane workplace is increasingly a competitive advantage and not to have one a definite turn off for recruitment, no matter how high the pay.

With Charney there are allegations of the CEOs inappropriate behaviour, such as touring a factory in his underwear. If true, these show how being a boss or a founder can for a while be a shield you from normal constraints of common decency and respect for others.

For Kelley his persistence in raising safety concerns came up against a determined hierarchy and silos of defensiveness, with senior people refusing to take responsibility for doing the right thing—recalling faulty and dangerous vehicles.

Public Distrust

While the context for both individuals differs in so many ways, their joint experiences underline the continuing and apparently growing public distrust of big business to do the right thing.

GM says it is now looking in depth at Kelley’s situation with the hint some kind compensation of substance may yet be proposed.

In turn, American Apparel’s Board has at last tried to make amends for what it called “substantiated allegations”. The CEO, said the board, had failed “to understand that this has nothing to do with the performance of the last 18 months.”

There remains though, a deeper ambivalence by all stakeholders over how to treat those who bravely call time on bad individual, corporate or indeed government behaviour.

Was Keeley a disruptive force or a GM loyalist who cared deeply about his company’s reputation and integrity? Was Charney a brilliant entrepreneurial driving force or an arrogant boss who had it coming and life finally caught up with him?

Perhaps the answer is they were both at the same time. For ethical leaders the challenge is to create cultures that can handle the ambiguity and the contradictions and end up doing the right thing.

What does a humane business culture look like?

Ethical leaders want their company’s culture to be humane, not just because this is the right thing to do. Also because it’s how they can ensure people feel engaged and willing to speak up when things are going wrong.

Five ways ethical leaders can ensure a company culture is humane are:

1)    Values–make sure people feel valued—that is treated with dignity and respect

2)    Involved–achieve high levels of involvement, in which people feel connected and engaged with the central purpose of the organisation

3)    Developed–invest in the development of your people. Don’t merely train people to do their existing work—stimulate them to continually learn and grow as human beings.

4)    Inspire–find ways to regularly inspire people with the vision and purpose of the organisation. This is what effective leadership is all about and there is no substitute.

5)    Environment–provide an environment to minimise risk to health and maximise well-being. Totally eliminating danger may be difficult or impossible. It is about caring that people’s physical and mental welfare is a genuine and sustained concern of the leadership.


[1]T. Higgins and N. Summers: How GM Recalls: How General Motors Silenced a Whistle-Blower, Bloomberg Business Week, June 18, 2014
[2] E. Paton, Charney Clings to American Apparel dream, FT June 15th
[3] Creating an inclusive workplace, Equality and Human Rights Commission Guidance, 2010
[4] See for example Glass Door: http://www.glassdoor.co.uk/Reviews/Employee-Review-Harley-Davidson-RVW3329600.htm


Andrew Leigh
Andrew Leighhttp://www.ethical-leadership.co.uk
ANDREW is author of Ethical Leadership, (Kogan Page 2013) and writes regularly at www.ethical-leadership.co.uk. He believes business needs to re-discover the importance of ethics and integrity. As an expert on leadership Andrew writes regularly on ways to help managers be more effective as ethical leaders. His blog stays close to the zeitgeist with a unique perspective on many aspects of leading organisations ethically, including compliance, and engagement. Andrew is a joint founder in 1989 of Maynard Leigh Associates (www.maynardleigh.co.uk) pioneers of using ideas from theatre in business. He was a hands-on practising manager for many years in the public sector, ending his time on the front line running a division with over 1000 staff. Andrew also spent several years as a business and financial journalist, including time at The Observer newspaper. He has written over 20 books on management, leadership teams and so on. Originally trained as an economist, he is a Chartered Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development. He is available for speaking engagements, interviews, feature articles and consultancy.
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