Tech Whistleblowers Prefer Loud Exit To Quiet Quitting

Ferdie Samboe

The penchant for tech whistleblowers to quit their jobs with a bang while many of their colleagues engage in “quiet quitting” should be a wake-up call to industry leaders, according to a blog penned by four Forrester analysts.

A scorching employment market for security, risk and privacy professionals combined with the recruiting of values-based employees is creating a singular opportunity for tech chiefs, maintained the Forrester quartet, Sara M. Watson, Jeff Pollard, Allie Mellen and Alla Valente,

“This unique confluence of circumstances presents an opportunity for tech leaders to make digital ethics, security improvements, risk programs, and trust initiatives a mainstream topic of conversation,” they wrote.

They explained that many tech firms — including Twitter — have put responsible and ethical technology principles into practice in the form of AI ethics boards, responsible innovation guidelines, and offices for ethical and humane use of technology. But these self-regulatory half-measures are being called out as ethics washing.

“Many tech companies are values- and ethics-first,” Senior Analyst Mellen told TechNewsWorld. “However, when they don’t live up to those promises — especially with customer data — customers take notice and lose trust in them.

Customers aren’t the only ones taking notice. “It detracts from the talent that wants to work at a particular firm if an individual knows that they may be fired or silenced for speaking out about supposedly mutual ethics and values,” Mellen said.

Perils of Integrity Hires

When firms say they are developing technology responsibly, it attracts talent who believe in those values, the blog authors noted. “Employees are making active decisions on where to work based on a common set of goals and a need to feel connected to the greater vision and purpose of a potential employer,” Liz Miller, vice president and a principal analyst at Constellation Research, told TechNewsWorld.

When you select people with ideals and integrity, you get people with ideals and integrity, the blog authors reasoned — and when you behave in ways that betray those people, they do not simply conform — they rebel.

“Today’s employees have assigned value to their employer’s mission, vision and promised values,” Miller observed. “If you break that value chain, you do it at your own risk.”

“They will quit, which is an operational loss and cost,” she continued, “but there is also the very possibility that their disappointment, their experiences and their frustrations will play out across social and digital channels.”

“Not listening to employees is as dangerous as failing to listen to customers,” she added.

The authors of the blog noted that damages to an organization caused by a whistleblower are like a self-inflicted wound. These individuals desperately tried to change things inside their companies by going to leadership with concerns well before those concerns became headlines, the bloggers wrote, but they were pressured to conform, ignored entirely, and subsequently sidelined.

Bottom Line Trumps Ethics

Anyone who has been paying attention to corporate America or technology companies shouldn’t be surprised by ethics washing, declared John Bambenek, a principal threat hunter at Netenrich, a San Jose, Calif.-based IT and digital security operations company.

“At its core, business ethics requires executives to maximize shareholder value by making money,” he told TechNewsWorld. “They will adopt as little ethics as possible to avoid impact on the bottom line.”

“Until someone revamps what business ethics requires of leaders — either by regulation or a shift in case law — business leaders will continue on their current path,” he said.

If they do continue on that path, they’re likely to continue to find whistleblowers on it — even in the face of industry-wide layoffs and recessionary pressures. The blog authors point out that the SEC has rewarded 278 whistleblowers $1.3 million since 2012. These incentives bring resources and greater legal protections, so it’s unlikely that those seeking accountability for tech’s harms will hold back, the authors added.

They also noted that tech worker organizations are funding actions and offering counsel and advice to whistleblowers. The same resource that put Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen in front of Congress with a bipartisan moral-panic message, they wrote, has also backed Twitter whistleblower Peiter “Mudge” Zatko.

In some industries, layoffs could have an impact on employees willing to trade their job for their ethical beliefs, Mellen acknowledged, but not in cybersecurity. “Security talent is still highly sought after — especially ethical and experienced talent,” she said. “Until the talent gap in security decreases, there will still be a high demand for talent.”

To Go Quietly or Not To Go Quietly

Because few job markets compare to security, risk, and privacy in terms of supply versus demand, the blog authors noted, that puts them in a unique position to lead change.

What’s more, they explain that when internal advocacy fails, a clear and effective external playbook now exists. Accepting defeat, resigning with an ambiguous “time to move on,” and confiding to close friends about how bad things were is the old way to leave, they maintained

Tons of articles want to convince everyone that quiet quitting is the new normal, they continued. Whistleblowing is the opposite of quiet quitting. Recruiting values-based, empowered employees in fields with scorching demand and then not listening to them almost guarantees that they will not quit quietly.

However, Bambenek argues that most employees will leave quietly rather than face the consequences of whistleblowing. “Whistleblower protections are not truly effective,” he asserted. “Employers can’t directly retaliate but they can do so quietly over time.”

“Whistleblowers that make the press will often notice job prospects dry up,” he said. “Quiet quitting is the safe way for employees to get out of corporate environments that give them ethics concerns without the professional impacts of speaking up.”

“The reality is,” he continued, “until you get to a certain point in your career, the risk of losing income and not being able to replace it will keep most people quiet.”

“Those quitting publicly and making statements are the exception, and it’s reserved for professionals at the top of their career who still have earning potential,” he added. “Even most mid-career professionals could easily be silently blacklisted for such behavior which means most of this will continue to go on quietly.”

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