Factors in the Reporting of Unethical Conduct: The Importance of Trust in Leaders

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My research investigates factors related to the reporting of unethical conduct. While accounting for known individual, organizational and situational correlates, I focus particularly on leaders and especially on trust in leaders as whistle-blowing research to date has neglected the well-developed sociological literature of trust. Leveraging the benefits of multiple methods, I analyze recent secondary data on federal civilian employees, collect and analyze interview data at four civilian and military sites, and conduct a factorial vignette study to test factors and themes identified in the first two sections of my research.

My secondary data analyses support previous whistle-blowing research in relating supervisor status, greater importance placed on anonymity, greater organizational support for anonymous reporting, greater organizational protection for whistle-blowers and greater severity of observed misconduct to increased reporting. Contrary to what previous literature theorizes, I find more observed leader misconduct and in-group location of misconduct relate to increased reporting. With the exception of an expressed in-group preference, my qualitative analyses reinforce these findings and identify a peer-oriented culture and self-preservation as reasons why unethical conduct may go unreported. My interview data also reveal that participants prefer to report unethical conduct to a trusted leader, although the severity of such misconduct may moderate this preference.

My vignette analyses find greater trust in leaders is related to increased reporting only for non-supervisors, highlighting the additional importance trust plays for lower-status individuals. Also, good behavior by the leader accepting a report is related to increased reporting for all participants. My vignette data bolster previous findings, including relating a lesser orientation towards Machiavellianism to increased reporting, and find the severity of observed misconduct has the largest relative effect on the reporting outcome. Counter to my prediction, vignette participants are less likely to report unethical conduct perpetrated by a supervisor supporting the notion that fear of retaliation may factor into the reporting decision. By highlighting obstacles to reporting, I assist leaders in addressing such barriers possibly contributing to the identification and correction of unethical conduct. I conclude with implications for federal employees and all leaders seeking to increase the reporting of unethical conduct in their organizations.