FORTUNE – We all know the feeling: the boss has given us an unpleasant task we may not even agree with but ultimately have to perform. Many times, these orders are essential to making a company run. But not always. And sometimes they seem plain wrong.
In those cases, companies ultimately benefit when a subordinate speaks up, according to James Detert, a management professor at Cornell's Johnson school. But right when their input is needed most, many employees lose their voice. "In the vast majority of cases where companies end up with whistleblowing-level disasters, almost always we can trace them back to an early conversation where somebody tried to communicate directly up the chain and couldn't or were so afraid to do so that they let it pile up," he says.
Sometimes, it's impossible to push against powerful people. But employees often have resources to empower themselves that they may not recognize.
Every whistleblowing-level disaster comes with its unique combination of communication and cultural mishaps. After the 2010 BP oil spill, it came to light that the company had a systemic problem with reporting safety issues up the chain. A rogue trader at UBS (UBS) is currently on trial in London on charges that he acted illegally when he made trades that lost the bank over $2 billion in 2011. Yet, he was probably part of a corporate culture that encouraged risky bets and big returns.
Some organizations penalize staffers for speaking out. At the same time, plenty of executives claim they want to encourage an "open culture," Detert says. Managers can take several steps to pull this off, but in the meantime, there are a couple of ways all employees can protect themselves from a boss forcing their hand. More
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