Individuals are not only members of their organization; they also belong to internal social groups that affect behavior and influence decision-making.

In a new study, scientists from Carnegie Mellon University focused on these intraorganizational dynamics and theorized two ways group affiliations are likely to affect whistleblowing. They found that group cohesion decreased people’s propensity to report wrongdoers within the group but raised their tendency to report wrongdoers outside the group.

Scientists used information from the 2010 Merit Principles Survey, which asked federal employees in two dozen U.S. departments and agencies about actual and hypothetical wrongdoing. The study’s sample included almost 3,000 federal workers who knew of wrongdoing by another government worker who either reported it or didn’t. The researchers also conducted a vignette experiment using a separate sample of nearly 300 online respondents in the United States.

Due to the potential whistleblower’s increased loyalty to group members and desire to uphold the group’s reputation, the study discovered that when a wrongdoer was associated with a potential whistleblower’s group, more group cohesion decreased the likelihood of blowing the whistle. Higher group cohesion enhanced the likelihood of blowing the whistle when a wrongdoer was not associated with a potential whistleblower’s group because potential whistleblowers felt they had the backing of fellow group members, lowering their worries of retaliation.

Scientists noted, “The study features several limitations. While research has shown that individuals’ morality and perceptions of wrongdoing can be influenced by social dynamics and group membership, this study did not assess whether individuals interpret differently which behaviors constitute wrongdoing.”

“The study also did not address issues related to overlapping group memberships and differences in voluntary versus mandatory groups. Finally, the study did not distinguish which acts of wrongdoing harmed victims (e.g., harassment, discrimination) and which harmed just the organization.”

The study’s findings imply that individuals are heavily impacted by group dynamics within the organization, possibly even more so than by concerns about the organization itself, which runs counter to popular perceptions about whistleblowing. Thus, group cohesion can encourage employees to cover up wrongdoing in one part of the company (i.e., outside the group). Still, it can also encourage employees to protect wrongdoers in another company area (i.e., inside of the group).

Patrick Bergemann, Assistant Professor of Organization and Management at the Paul Merage School of Business at UCI, who led the study, said, “By showing how group affiliations inform whistleblowing decisions, we reveal how variation in social structure leads to heterogeneity in responses to wrongdoing. As such, we encourage organizations to look at more than organizational-level factors and consider a new focus on relational dynamics.”

Journal Reference:

  1. Patrick Bergemann et al., Whistleblowing and Group Affiliation: The Role of Group Cohesion and the Locus of the Wrongdoer in Reporting Decisions, Organization Science (2022). DOI: 10.1287/orsc.2022.1617