Managing Your Public Risk


October 2000

The Need for Loyal Dissent

Is it ever morally or legally right for employees to blow the whistle on their employer? How can a company stop employees from washing corporate dirty linen in public?  Is there any value in having loyal dissent or “friendly critics” within the organization?    

On the last point, former General Motors president Alfred P. Sloan would say “yes.”  When his executives all agreed to a proposal of his, he told them they obviously hadn’t given it enough thought and thus they couldn’t fully understand the problem.  He deferred his decision until he got some opposing views.

To be sure, employees owe their employers a duty of loyalty – and that includes a measure of discretion in public.  But if employees witness employer acts that are illegal or endanger others AND speaking out doesn’t affect the employee’s ability to do their job, courts have held that the employee’s duty to speak out overrules their duty of loyalty to the employer. Managers beware!

Invoking this principle requires specifics: employers shouldn’t have to defend against frivolous charges or the mere opinions of staff.  But serious concerns by staff (or their union) should not be dismissed.  A due diligence management response is needed: at very least, an objective verification of the purported facts.

Speaking out alone can be terrifying and costly for employees and embarrassing, if not damaging, for the employer.  The CEO’s job is to make sure it happens inside the organization, not outside!

Loyal employees, like the two rocket engineers who vigorously opposed the fatal Challenger launch, often act on sound knowledge and unselfish motives.  Their voices may pierce the blanketing management layers that too often muffle important messages in organizations.   In NASA's case, the message was rejected and the rest is history.

So, what's a manager to do?  First, listen to your staff.  It’s much cheaper than suffering the reputational, legal and financial consequences that might otherwise follow.  Don’t force them to go outside the organization to voice their concerns.  Second, encourage debate.  Promote  honest and informed opinions.  Establish a forum.  Ask for and entertain dissenting views.  Share them.  Seek a devil’s advocate.  Let staff express their concerns in writing, if need be, without fear of recrimination. Third, if necessary, challenge them, always respectfully, asking for proof of their claims.  Fourth, never, ever shoot the messenger – or you will get no more honest messages.
Bottom line: don’t stifle loyal dissent - it is the lifeblood of a healthy organization.  If you aren’t seen vigorously encouraging and rewarding internal feedback, you will lose your best employees - and with them, your future.  Listening politely isn’t enough. If they’re right, you have to take action. This is risk management where and when it counts.  Let there be no ambiguity with your staff on where you stand on the need for loyal dissent in your organization. 

Recommended Reading for Risk Managers

Exit, Voice and Loyalty by Albert O. Hirschman. This concise gem, written by an economist, outlines the three options facing frustrated or dissatisfied employees or customers and what organizations can do about the repairable lapses in each. This classic is in its own field.


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Mike Murphy has been a risk management consultant for the last four years. Prior to that, he spent 17 years (78-96) with Transport Canada, his last five as Regional Director General, Aviation in Winnipeg, where he never shot any of his messengers.  A number of them came into his office with some pretty wild tales, and all left secure in their jobs and that what they said would be taken seriously.  This is just the boardroom application of techniques that airline pilots have been using for years - known as Crew Resource Management (CRM).  Originally trained as a professional pilot, he is the author of an internationally acclaimed 500-page report entitled "An Evaluation of Emergency Response Services at Airports in Canada."  He is also the Chairman of the Air Passenger Safety Group (APSG) , a Director of Transport 2000 Canada,  a Director of the Ottawa Chapter of Christian Businessmen's Committee (CBMC) and the Secretary General of the Peugeot Club of North America (PCNA).  

Managing Your Public Risk, now in its second year, enjoys a better than 99.7% acceptance rate.  If you have any comments, suggestions or criticisms, please let us know. 

Murphy thanks esteemed colleague Ken Heard, CHRP of for his peer review and suggestions on this edition.

(Available in Word 97 by email or by fax from):

e-mail: Michael Murphy

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