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Reporting Misconduct and Spying on Coworkers: how do we explain the difference?

Last night, I watched an episode of Nine for IX, an ESPN documentary series celebrating the 40th anniversary of Title IX.*  The episode that I asked my DVR to record was called “The Diplomat,” and it profiled Katarina Witt, who won the gold medal in women’s figure skating for East Germany at the Olympics at Sarajevo in 1984 and at Calgary in 1988.

I remember watching Katarina Witt in the 80s and 90s.  I vaguely remember her rivalry with Rosalynn Sumners in 1984 and have a clearer memory of her “Battle of the Carmens” with Debi Thomas in 1988.  I rooted for Sumners and Thomas because they were American, and because nobody wanted the socialists to win, but I didn’t think much about why that was the case beyond the simple fact of the Cold War, never digging deeper into the root causes.

“The Diplomat” surprised me.  I was expecting something of a puff piece on Witt, a longer version of the bits they do on the athletes during the Olympics.  The producers of the film titled it “The Diplomat” because of the role that Witt played in Cold War politics as the most visible face of East Germany.  And because of its analysis on the impact of politics on Witt’s career, the documentary also explained quite a bit about the Stasi, the secret police of East Germany.

With the fall of the Berlin Wall, citizens got access to the files that the Stasi kept on everyone; there were 27 boxes of paper devoted just to Witt.  One of the things that East German citizens learned was that they had even less privacy than they thought:  their family members and friends were reporting bits of information back to the Stasi all the time.

“The Diplomat” producers interviewed Witt, her coach, and a couple of Stasi historians.  They also interviewed a contemporary and colleague of Witt, Ingo Steuer, a pairs skater who won a World Championship and an Olympic bronze in the late 1990s.  As elite athletes, Steuer and Witt had the privilege of traveling outside the country to competitions.  One night, when Steuer was 17 or 18, an acquaintance went to Steuer’s house, put a piece of paper in front of Steuer, and told Steuer to sign it.  Steuer didn’t remember much about the specific contents of the paper, but he did remember that he saw the word, “prison,” and by signing the document, he agreed to keep an eye on Katarina Witt and to report back whatever details he could to the Stasi.

All these years later, Steuer looked haunted when he shared what he’d done.  Witt expressed some understanding of why her friends and families informed on her and said that she doesn’t harbor any bitterness.  There wasn’t any footage of Witt and Steuer together, even though the interviews of Witt and Steuer were filmed at the skating rink where they both trained as children.

It got me thinking about the enormous burden we put on employees to tell us about compliance failures, given the potential stigma that attaches to whistleblowers.  Our experiences on the playground teach us not to tattle.  Parents tell children that nobody likes a tattletale when one sibling runs to tell on another.  Ingo Steuer reported on Katarina Witt because he was threatened with prison and probably also to have support for his livelihood taken away.  Edward Snowden believes himself to have done the right, moral, ethical thing by leaking information about NSA data tracking.  In the face of the baggage associated with reporting potential misconduct, are we doing enough to teach our employees why it’s necessary and why it’s the right thing?  Are we doing enough to protect them?  The world is made up of a million shades of gray when you’re on the line or sandwiched in the middle of a corporation than we see in C&E.  I wonder if we’re so focused on clarifying that gray into black and white that we’re missing a critical amount of color.

 

* Title IX is the portion of the Education Amendments of 1972 that, among other things, prohibited the exclusion of women from participating in sports activities at universities that receive federal financial assistance.

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