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It has become far too uncommon for a citizen or a worker to speak up when confronted by something that is wrong. Worse, while objecting and arguing is taken as heroic, there would appear to be a consensus on silence: that keeping one’s mouth shut is acceptable. What is at stake here is the abandonment of integrity, i.e. the ordinary responsibility of the ordinary citizen in workplace, institution, club, on or off line and in casual interaction to speak truth to bad behaviour, illegitimate instructions or plans and indeed complete bollocks.

It has been necessary to surround whistle-blowers with protective laws and institutions. This is to protect their right to … well, their right to what? You see, there is an enormous difference between protecting their right to be exceptionally heroic and protecting their right to behave as any decent person should. The difference plays out in the treatment of those who knew and remained silent.

The protection offered to whistle-blowers makes it just about possible for an individual to act with integrity. Yes, it incentivises doing the decent thing but not overly so; it offers a measure of security but it also applies a label and probably ends a career. It is a contradiction – even madness – to accept that ordinary integrity be treated as exceptional and in need of protection. It is, therefore, essential to incentivise integrity by treating it as an expectation. That is to say, whistle-blower legislation must include the obligation that after enquiries are completed and perhaps offenders dealt with, attention should turn to those who remained silent, i.e. attention should focus on those who demonstrated a lack of ordinary integrity. In at least some cases the failure to behave properly will mark these people as unfit for the positions they hold. However, the main reason for extending the process beyond the individual whistle-blower is to incentivise whistle-blowing.

It has to be made clear that citizens are required to operate with integrity. Moreover, it has to be emphasised that integrity is a requirement for most jobs, and failure to demonstrate it – should the occasion arise – will result in opprobrium at least. It is not acceptable that the one or two demonstrably good people in an organisation should walk off as heroes into obscurity, leaving time servers and chancers to rewarding careers.

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One Comment

  1. Colm, your suggestion that we should “incentivise integrity by treating it as a. expectation” brings to mind my school
    days in Legion of Mary. It was where I learned how to conduct myself in committee, how to prepare agendas, participate in decision making, how to record those decisions. I had been given the skills to move on and serve my community in residents associations and school boards long before I became a public rep. How to listen, how to hear and how to disagree.
    I was surprised in later life to discover how many LP members had served time in the Legion!
    Investment in training for participive democracy at community level could teach those skills.


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