Wharton’s Samir Nurmohamed talks with Wharton Business Daily on SiriusXM about what compels whistleblowers to come forward in an organization.

Whistleblower Frances Haugen told a Senate subcommittee last week that she is speaking out about harmful practices at Facebook because she wants to reform the social media giant, not destroy it.

“Facebook can change but is clearly not going to do so on its own,” said Haugen, a data scientist and former product manager for the company. “Congress can change the rules that Facebook plays by and stop the many harms it is causing.”

Her moral objection comes as no surprise to Wharton assistant management professor Samir Nurmohamed, whose research focus includes workplace ethics. He said Facebook’s own branding as a positive force connecting the world likely set the stage for a person of conscience like Haugen to call out what she saw as unethical behavior. Armed with thousands of pages of confidential documents she copied before leaving Facebook, Haugen detailed how the company puts “profits over safety” with algorithms that amplify misinformation, sow political division, and harm children.

“When you have that kind of culture, when you have that messaging, even if people aren’t living up to it fully, as an outsider you kind of gravitate toward the organization. You think it’s an admirable mission [to work for that kind of company],” Nurmohamed said about Facebook’s public image during a recent interview on Wharton Business Daily. “To what extent did she feel like those messages led her to believe that this was the right thing to do in this circumstance?”

Nurmohamed co-authored a 2013 study about internal whistleblowing that found ethical leaders and co-workers are strong influences on whether internal whistleblowers come forward in an organization. They found that a highly ethical work environment mitigates fears of retaliation for whistleblowers, further empowering them to speak up. In other words, “it takes a village to support internal whistleblowing,” the researchers wrote in their study.

Taking a Stand

Although the paper was written nearly a decade ago, the findings are still relevant today because there is increasing pressure for companies to be transparent, authentic, and socially responsible.

“I think we’re going to continue to see to what extent, especially as corporate executives and CEOs take more stands on moral issues in society, that leads more people below them to speak up,” Nurmohamed said. “We know from prior research that when there’s ethical leadership at the top, it does trickle down throughout the levels of the organization.”

He emphasized just how difficult it is for whistleblowers to come forward, whether they are external or internal. They do so at great personal and professional risk, and against all sorts of pressures to just go along with the status quo.

“There is this trade-off in value that people face,” he said. “They want to speak up about something related to fairness and justice, something going wrong. But at same time, there is this competing value of loyalty. Loyalty to the people within the organization, people that have supported me, people that have been paying my salary. That trade-off is really hard for whistleblowers to deal with.”

Nurmohamed noted that Haugen’s actions were bolstered by hard evidence: the revealing documents that she copied from the company. Perhaps most disturbing was Facebook’s internal research that found 13.5% of teen girls said Instagram worsens thoughts of suicide, and 17% of teen girls said Instagram worsens eating disorders. Facebook bought the Instagram platform in 2012 for $1 billion.

“This has been coined as a Big Tobacco moment for Facebook, and a lot of it depends on whether more people speak up or not.”  –Samir Nurmohamed

At the same time, Nurmohamed said he’s concerned that other companies won’t bother studying the dangers of their own products if they fear others will blow the whistle in the future.

“I’m worried they won’t even pursue this type of research in the first place, and we’ll just have to rely even more on people coming up in [Haugen’s] shoes [without data],” he said. “I would hate for us to see in the future companies not engaging in this research to really understand the effects that their products are having.”

Nurmohamed said there’s no question that the practice of whistleblowing is “here to stay.” While high-profile cases like Facebook, Enron, and Big Tobacco garner worldwide headlines and spawn movies, even smaller stories have the power to effect change. He’s waiting to see if more people at Facebook, which has long been criticized for operating without any guardrails from the government, will come forward as Haugen has done.

“This has been coined as a Big Tobacco moment for Facebook, and a lot of it depends on whether more people speak up or not,” he said.