Speaking Up is Hard to Do

When we want to justify decisions that later prove to be immoral, unpopular or unwise, we almost always rely on the rules-is-rules approach. ‘I was only doing what the contract said’; ‘Everyone else was doing it’, or ‘My boss told me it was OK’. Some famous 20thc experiments show how far this can go. In the Stanford Prison experiment, nicely brought up students chosen at random to be ‘guards’ quickly fell to seriously abusing fellow students, chosen at random to be ‘prisoners’, in the fake prison devised for the project. http://www.prisonexp.org/ The experiment had to be stopped before it got completely out of hand.

Some recent events show how pervasive is the defence that ‘I was only doing what I was told’. The former BBC Director General Mark Thompson agreed a substantial sum to his deputy, Mark Byford, to ensure that this already very well paid manager managed to keep his mind on the job before he left – and large sums to other colleagues who were also on their way out. Mr Byford recently broke his silence in order to justify his payoff, pointing out that he had not been involved in the decision, that he had worked for the BBC for decades and was contractually entitled to the money. No one involved in those decisions at the BBC seems to have asked, ‘How would it look if this came out in public? Or, ‘Can it be right to pay people so much out of a publicly-funded licence fee?’ Or, ‘How can we justify the massive differential between our own salaries and those of the people actually making the programmes?’ It seems that an inner group of senior managers had so wrapped themselves in notions of their self-awarded ‘commercial’ value that they had lost sight of how it might play to people who were not part of that world.

The same principle is at work in what is now being revealed about the culture in the now-defunct News of The World, where allegedly, there were substantial financial rewards for obtaining a story through hacking people’s phones, whether of a celebrity or of a ‘civilian’, stories that could hurt those people and seriously compromise their privacy.

At Colchester General Hospital staff claim that they were bullied in order to falsify waiting times for cancer patients thus potentially putting the lives of those patients at risk. Earlier attempts to raise the issue were sharply dismissed by the hospital’s senior management as ‘a fantasy’.

Why is it so difficult for moral sense to prevail? Did anyone say in any of these organizations, ‘Could this be morally wrong?’ Possibly they did, but their voices could not be heard given the pervasiveness of the culture, the din of justification – and the fear, often well rooted, of reprisals.

But there seems to be some hope. The current uproar over Colchester General Hospital has happened because for once, whistleblowers could speak without fear of retribution. The scandal in the care home where vulnerable patients with dementia were allegedly flung out of wheelchairs or had beanbags thrown at them has been exposed for the same reason.

Hannah Arendt, historian of the Holocaust, recounts the story of the King of Denmark who announced that if Jews had to wear the yellow star then he would too. Denmark was the only Nazi-occupied country where this edict was never enforced. It takes moral and physical courage to speak up. Can we all be sure that we would? Can we face our fears about exclusion and punishment?

As a coach I have worked with clients who were agonizing in the guaranteed confidentiality in the coaching room about whether to report morally borderline behaviour as well as straightforward abuse, fraud, bullying or corruption. Mostly they did report it because once a moral dilemma has been voiced to someone else it becomes hard to ignore. Mostly these clients left their organizations, not always on good terms. Now, at least for clinicians, it has become a legal obligation (was it really ever not so?) to act on your Duty of Care. And whistleblower protection is guaranteed. Good.