The Securities and Exchange Commission paid a record $37 million to whistleblowers last year. Even so, research has found that as many as half of the employees who witness misconduct do not disclose it.

WhistleTo encourage more disclosure, the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners has recommended that companies specifically emphasize anti-retaliation protections in their communication with workers, and the great majority of Fortune 500 firms now do so.

Yet, sensible and responsible though such measures would seem, new research suggests they are counterproductive.

An experiment reported in the current issue of the American Accounting Association journal Behavioral Research in Accounting suggests that explicit assurances that whistleblowing will not lead to retaliation have an effect opposite from the intended one. Although the experiment deals with a hypothetical auditing firm, it clearly has implications for many kinds of organizations.

“It is common knowledge that whistleblowers are often harmed, rather than protected, as a result of reporting unethical behavior,” wrote study authors James Wainberg of Florida Atlantic University and Stephen Perreault of Providence College. “Therefore, vivid language that points a reader’s attention to explicit instances of retaliation is likely to evoke fearful mental imagery, even if the intent of the vivid language is to engender a feeling of protection.”

Indeed, the experiment’s results suggest that explicitly raising the specter of retaliation, even to convey assurance it will not happen, increases perceptions of risk on average by about 25% over what it would be otherwise.

Participants in the experiment were 68 students enrolled in a university graduate auditing course who averaged about one year’s experience as auditors, an amount that would qualify them as staff-level auditors in accounting firms.

The subjects read a vignette explaining that during the course of performing audit test work, an accountant has uncovered evidence that the engagement partner supervising the project has acted in ways that constituted a clear violation of professional independence and conduct requirements.

How likely is it, participants were asked — on a scale of 1 (extremely unlikely) to 9 (extremely likely) — that the auditor will report the misconduct through the whistleblower hotline established by the accounting firm?

And, they were asked, to what extent did they agree — on a scale of 1 (strongly disagree) to 9 (strongly agree) — that doing so would harm the staff auditor’s chances of being promoted?

Half of the participants were told that the hotline was “a method for reporting conduct that may be unethical, illegal, or improper. All responses are kept anonymous.”

The other half of participants were shown the identical statement, but it was supplemented with this: “Individuals who make such a report shall not be subject to intimidation or retaliation. This includes threatening behavior, harassment, loss of job or promotion, or any other professional, personal, or financial form of retaliation both now and in the future. If you believe that you are being retaliated against, you should report such conduct immediately to your direct supervisor or to the Human Resources Department.”

Among the group that was assured retaliation would not happen, the mean estimate of reporting likelihood was 5.09. Among the group for which retaliation was unmentioned, it was 5.97, or about 17% more.

And, while among the first group the mean estimate of job risk was 4.97, among the second it was 6.18, or almost 25% more.

The professors also probed whether the degree of perceived job security influenced the likelihood of reporting and the perceived risk of doing so, and found no statistically significant effects. They did concede, though, that “as relatively new auditors our participants may have had difficulty relating to the job security construct.”

What about the fact that anonymity was guaranteed to the entire sample — wouldn’t that diminish participants’ need for anti-retaliatory guarantees?

Earlier research on the importance of anonymity guarantees has been mixed, the authors note: “While our study does not specifically investigate anonymous versus non-anonymous reporting, we posit that explicit protections in whistleblower hotline policies may actually make the dangers of whistleblowing more salient, thereby intensifying rather than diminishing the fear of retaliation.”

How, then, can a company minimize perceptions of retaliation risk?

“Rather than describing explicit protections offered from retaliation, organizations could instead more explicitly describe the organization’s commitment to good corporate governance and ethical behavior,” the professors wrote.

“Furthermore, organizations may wish to publicize successful instances of employee whistleblowing as a means of increasing the availability of instances in which whistleblower retaliation did not occur. Note that we are not suggesting that whistleblower hotline policies should omit a statement indicating that retaliation is forbidden. Rather, our results indicate that explicitly and vividly describing the types of retaliation that are prohibited … may have unintended consequences.”

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