A whistleblower is someone internal to an organization who alleges misconduct. So, what if the organization is the church? Does the church handle whistleblowers effectively or not? If so, how? If not, why not?
In corporate America, misconduct is often characterized as a violation of a law, rule, regulation and/or a direct threat to public interest, such as fraud, health/safety violations, and corruption. Whistle-blower protection is a serious concern as others inside an organization tend to “shoot the messenger” when it comes to whistle-blowers. Major corporations are wise to provide options and multiple complaint mechanisms to handle internal complaints. I work for one such organization. There are many vehicles to handle internal complaints: employee surveys, human resources groups (several different kinds), an ombuds office, online employee discussion forums that allow anonymous participation, and a very large compliance and legal department to proactively police regulatory issues.
In my experience, the vast majority of what gets reported as “misconduct” is really something else, such as:
- a complainant with hurt feelings
- the result of poor relationship or communication skills (either on the part of the complainant or a direct leader or some other third party); in some cases, this alleged misconduct is actual misconduct, but not always.
- a misunderstanding of what the laws and regulations are or what the supposed “misconduct” activity entailed
- an act of vengeance (e.g. the complainant hopes to exact revenge on another employee or leader using the complaint vehicle as a weapon)
That is not always the case, of course, which is why it’s worth it to sift through hundreds of complaints to find the one that is a real issue for the company and that requires intervention. To the complainant, the complaint is very serious and needs to be resolved to their satisfaction. In reality, it’s nearly impossible to separate the complaint from the complainant. The more neutral the complainant, the more valuable the complaint. Some of these factors make the complainant seem less neutral:
- The complainant wants something of personal benefit as a result of the complaint.
- The complainant is vengeful toward individuals they accuse of wrong-doing or there is a known personality conflict between them and an accused party.
- The complainant has a history of making complaints.
- If they no longer have any ties to the organization (an ex-insider), that complaint might also seem suspect to insiders, regardless of how neutrally the complaint is phrased.
So, when it comes to complaints within the organization of the church, how do we do? Here are some areas where I think we do well:
- Complaints are handled at the lowest level possible.
- Complaints are generally handled in confidence (obviously, there are individuals who have blown this, but IME, local leaders tend to take confidentiality to extremes).
- There is a focus on accountability (LDS scriptures actually instruct members to handle personal conflicts between them and the other party).
- Actual misconduct complaints (e.g. fraud, legal, etc.) are generally taken very seriously and actions to remedy are easy to handle swiftly due to the lay clergy aspect of the church.
Where do we sometimes fall down?
- Females alleging sexual misconduct may find the process extra difficult due to the lack of female representation in church courts. A female who already feels violated may have a difficult time in addressing an all-male leadership with painful details that are necessary to assess the situation.
- There is very little effective access to top levels of the organization. This is really only an issue if the complaint is about local leadership or if the complaint has organizational implications. We should bear in mind that this is how the Catholic church got into trouble over the priest molestation scandals–by pushing too much to local levels to handle and not realizing they had an institutional problem before it was too late.
- Organizations with deep pockets are often the target of spurious law suits which makes identifying the serious cases more difficult.
- Disclosures about financial and legal activities are either vague or considered confidential. But again, this is often the case in a corporation as well. While financial disclosure of a publicly-traded company is more open, airing dirty laundry over minor litigations is not.
- Local leaders may lack the skill to assess and deal with issues and may hold complainants at bay to cover their ineptitude. They may use unrighteous dominion to punish the complainant. And there is some open question about the church’s culpability when an untrained lay clergy makes a local error in judgment.
- Individuals feel guilty for complaining in a religious structure. This is true of all churches, but added to it is our lay clergy. It’s harder to complain about an unpaid volunteer.
- Whistle-blowers may not be taken seriously if they are not considered neutral or are frequent complainers. But this is true in all human organizations, and is the basis for the age-old story The Boy Who Cried Wolf. There’s sometimes a reason the messenger gets shot.
So, what do you think? Do we do a good job dealing with complaints or not? Do we do a better job with more severe complaints or minor issues? What should we do to improve how we handle complaints or is the system working just fine? Discuss.