Wall of Silence: Banding Together to Avoid Detection

Jill McMahon - Wednesday, May 18, 2016
Protection from Detection

The saying “safety in numbers” can apply to so many situations. For example, a group of students may be more empowered than an individual to stand up to a school bully. Walking dark city streets with a group of people may be safer than walking alone. The list goes on.

But the term can also be turned on its head and applied in more sinister circumstances. We have seen this in instances of workplace corruption, in which a group of corrupt employees commits workplace fraud and then closes ranks to prevent detection. It is a wall of silence that enables powerful alliances to be formed. Its success depends upon members keeping quiet about the activities of the group.  

Strength of the “in” group

We think of these alliances as “in” groups. Their power is derived from peer group pressure, and mutual benefit of identifying within the group which is a concept explored in social identity theory.

But it goes further than this. In cases where there has been a complaint or an investigation by management, the “in” group can close ranks by providing false evidence or even applying upward pressure on management to abandon the investigation. 

The “in” group may also work to ensure that there are narrow terms of reference for any investigation into corrupt conduct. This may have the effect of limiting the number of witnesses who can be interviewed or limiting the questions that can be asked. As a result, the investigation may be rendered ineffective. 

The group may ensure that any complaints to a human resources manager are filed as trivial. In our article on alliances and networks, we illustrated how a web of corruption can be extended to include managers and additional departments as a corrupt employee is promoted through the ranks. 

In this scenario, the HR manager would be part of the “in” group. They can create the impression that they properly investigated the complaint by informally discussing the matter with some witnesses and making a file note that the matter has been considered and closed. But in reality the issue still exists.

 Is it really an issue?

Because corrupt conduct can be so difficult to detect, it is hard to determine how bad it really is. 

In its Global Economic Crime Survey 2016, PwC reported that there has been a marginal decrease in economic crime. 

But it noted that this may have been due to organisational detection and control programs failing to keep pace with changes in the ways that economic crimes are now being committed. 

As evidence of this, around 22% of respondent organisations said that they had not conducted any fraud risk assessments in the two years prior. This was despite more than one-third of respondents saying that they had experienced economic crime in that same period. And it also appeared that one in ten economic crimes were accidentally discovered, rather than being uncovered by management controls. 

What can be done?

We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again – preventing workplace corruption lies in effective management controls and early detection. 

Early detection can be assisted by organisations implementing:

  • Supervision and checking processes.
  • Sound internal reporting systems.
  • Complaint and grievance procedures that are properly followed.
  • Internal audits.
  • Work review programs. 

Corruption is ever-changing. It is clear that if organisations are to be successful in detecting and combatting corruption, their safeguards must also evolve and be checked regularly. Otherwise, detecting corruption becomes a matter of luck which is ideal for networks of employees who rely on a wall of silence to protect each other from detection.

WISE Workplace has much experience in investigating corruption issues and also developing and implementing anti-corruption strategies. Call us today to discuss the issues that are affecting your organisation. 

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