A whistleblower (also written as whistle-blower or whistle blower) is a person, often an employee, who reveals information about activity within a private or public organization that is deemed illegal, immoral, illicit, unsafe or fraudulent. Whistleblowers can use a variety of internal or external channels to communicate information or allegations. Over 83% of whistleblowers report internally to a supervisor, human resources, compliance, or a neutral third party within the company, hoping that the company will address and correct the issues. A whistleblower can also bring allegations to light by communicating with external entities, such as the media, government, or law enforcement. Whistleblowing can occur in either the private sector or the public sector.
Retaliation is a real risk for whistleblowers, which often pay a heavy price for blowing the whistle. The most common form of retaliation is abrupt termination of employment. However, several other actions may also be considered retaliatory, including extreme increases in workloads, having hours cut drastically, preventing task completion, or bullying. Laws in many countries attempt to protect whistleblowers and to regulate the whistleblowing activities. These laws tend to adopt different approaches to public and private sector whistleblowing.
Whistleblowers do not always achieve their aims. For their claims to be credible and successful, they must have compelling evidence to support their claims that the government or regulating body can use or investigate to “prove” such claims and hold corrupt companies and/or government agencies to account.
Attitudes toward whistleblowers
Whistleblowers are seen by some as selfless martyrs for public interest and organizational accountability; others view them as “traitors” or “defectors”. Some even accuse them of solely pursuing personal glory and fame, or view their behavior as motivated by greed in qui tam cases. Culturally it still has connotations of betrayal, from ‘snitching’ at one level to ‘denunciations’ at the other. Speaking out is difficult, especially in a culture where this is not promoted or even actively discouraged. Some academics (such as Thomas Faunce) feel that whistleblowers should at least be entitled to a rebuttable presumption that they are attempting to apply ethical principles in the face of obstacles and that whistleblowing would be more respected in governance systems if it had a firmer academic basis in virtue ethics.
‘Ethics’ is the set of moral principles that govern a person’s or group’s behavior. Deeper questions and theories of whistleblowing and why people choose to do so can be studied through an ethical approach. Whistleblowing is a topic of several myths and inaccurate definitions. Leading arguments in the ideological camp, maintain that whistleblowing is the most basic of ethical traits and simply telling the truth to stop illegal harmful activities, or fraud against the government/taxpayers. In the opposite camp, many corporations and corporate or government leaders see whistleblowing as being disloyal for breaching confidentiality, especially in industries that handle sensitive client or patient information. Hundreds of laws grant protection to whistleblowers, but stipulations can easily cloud that protection and leave whistleblowers vulnerable to retaliation, sometimes even threats and physical harm. However, the decision and action has become far more complicated with recent advancements in technology and communication.
The ethical implications of whistleblowing can be negative as well as positive. Some have argued that public sector whistleblowing plays an important role in the democratic process by resolving principle agent problems. However, sometimes employees may blow the whistle as an act of revenge. Rosemary O’Leary explains this in her short volume on a topic called guerrilla government. “Rather than acting openly, guerrillas often choose to remain “in the closet”, moving clandestinely behind the scenes, salmon swimming upstream against the current of power. Discussions of whistleblowing and employee loyalty usually assume that the concept of loyalty is irrelevant to the issue or, more commonly, that whistleblowing involves a moral choice that pits the loyalty that an employee owes an employer against the employee’s responsibility to serve the public interest. Robert A. Larmer describes the standard view of whistleblowing in the Journal of Business Ethics by explaining that an employee possesses prima facie (based on the first impression; accepted as correct until proved otherwise) duties of loyalty and confidentiality to their employers and that whistleblowing cannot be justified except on the basis of a higher duty to the public good. It is important to recognize that in any relationship which demands loyalty the relationship works both ways and involves mutual enrichment.