Research Points to Gender Disparities in Whistleblower Retaliation

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Research published in the Academy of Management found that women are more likely to experience retaliation when voicing concerns. The authors, Timothy Kundro of University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and Nancy Rothbard of the University of Pennsylvania, came up with four recommendations for organizations to reduce retaliation based on their findings.

According to the journal article summary, in one experiment in the study, 451 participants were tasked with completing a group project using a group chat. “During the project, the experimenters had a fake participant named Kevin or Kate raise a moral objection related to the task the group was completing,” a Forbes article on the study states. “[Kundro] says the objections raised weren’t necessarily illegal or unethical but typically fell into ‘a moral gray zone.’”

The experiment found that “Kate” received more backlash to her objections, which were “worded identically to those from Kevin…even when Kate was said to have power in her organization. In contrast, a powerful position helped protect Kevin from facing retaliation when the objection came from him,” Forbes reports. One member of the group told Kate: “You are a petulant little child. You need to grow up and get a grip.”

“The researchers believe that women face more retaliation because, in raising moral objections, they aren’t adhering to gender stereotypes,” the article states. It explains that some people perceive whistleblowers as acting out of selfishness, “[a]nd women aren’t expected to put their interests first. When women deviate from expectations of how they are expected to behave, they can face backlash and retaliation at work.”

Kundro says that women shouldn’t be expected to change their behavior in order to avoid retaliation; instead, the organization should “remove the bias and systematically eliminate this issue.”

In four studies, the researchers found that “women and men both engage in more retaliatory behavior against female moral objectors in positions of higher power than against men of similar rank,” according to the summary. Kundro said that their findings “show that observers have this inherent bias to view women in a different light than men, particularly when it comes to self-control, and this can lead to retaliation.” He offers, “Organizations need to reconsider how moral objectors are viewed more broadly, so that responses to their concerns are more supportive than retaliatory.”

Interestingly, the researchers found that if the objection or complaint either “Kate” or “Kevin” made was framed as concern for the company’s interest or on the company’s behalf, “retaliation against women and average-power individuals went down, becoming consistent across both gender and structural power levels.”

Kundro and Rothbard came up with four recommendations for organizations to stem retaliatory behavior:

“Regardless of gender, regardless of structural power, individuals who frame their moral objection as intending to benefit the organization and its members consistently were viewed as higher in self-control and consistently faced lower levels of retaliation than their counterparts, who use standard moral objection frames,” Kundro said. “So, practically, we think it’s really important for organizations to make this the norm so as not to put the onus on women or those who are lower in power, but rather to ensure that all the moral objectors are using these types of frames.”

Read the journal summary here. 

Read the Forbes article here. 

Read about six amazing women whistleblowers in a piece commemorating Women’s History Month. 

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