Modern societies hail whistleblowers as heroes. It is appropriate to give them the honor that is due them because of the personal sacrifices that they had made in order to “blow the whistle” against their own organization. It is a hard thing to do, going against their own team, the same group of individuals that they consider as an important part of their lives. In many cases they are even considered as family. Yet, it is a disturbing thought that a society will have to rely on whistleblowers to maintain decency, safety, and a level playing field that is good for business, the environment, and governance. The general public is grateful of the existence of heroic whistleblowers but it is much better to have none at all. The existence of heroic whistleblowers demonstrates the failure of anti-corruption systems; in an ethically healthy organization there might be ethical misconduct but there would be no need for heroic whistleblowers.
Before going any further it is imperative to first clarify what it means to blow the whistle on a corporation or government agency. This preliminary discussion allows for a clear argument later on. In this regard there is a need for a background study on the term used and it was found out that whistleblowing as a concept in ethics was adapted from the world of sports, law enforcement, and other organizations that use whistles as a tool for communication. The primary purpose of blowing the whistle is to communicate something so urgent and so vital that there is no time for discussion, the object of the message must stop on his tracks, listen and obey. The person who blows the whistle is an authority figure and his signal has to be obeyed immediately. Refusing to heed the warning of the whistle may lead to injury and other more disastrous results. This is much evident in law enforcement and even in traffic management. The police blowing his whistle want to get the attention of the person or perhaps a criminal fleeing from a crime scene. The fugitive has to stop immediately and it is also a warning to other officers in the area to help in the arrest of the said person. In the case of traffic enforcers the inability to hear the whistle sound can cause delays or even accidents.
In the world of sports the whistle and whistle-blowing is commonly associated with referees. They are the officials that help facilitate an orderly game. Without their help, games can turn ugly in a second as opposing teams will interpret the rules as they see fit. The game can be forfeited or worse, there can be a brawl and players as well as fans can be injured. While it is helpful to know where the term “whistle-blowing” was adapted from it must be made clear that whistleblowers when used in the context of ethical issues, especially in dealing with corporate greed and harmful business practices, whistleblowers in these cases should never be seen acting as if they are law enforcers and referees (Davis, p. 540). While “whistleblowers” help enforce the rule of law and maintain standards of business ethics, they are different from referees and law enforcers because they do not work from the outside, they work from within.
Erin Brokovich became famous because her life was the subject of a critically acclaimed movie starring Julia Roberts. However, her actions – no matter how it help transform the lives of many people and even jumpstarted reforms in the industry that she investigated – can never be considered as “whistleblowing” because it was part of her job to investigate and expose Pacific Gas and Electric (Miller, p. 160). In other words, corporate whistleblowers can be likened to players who blew the whistle on their own team and report them to the referee or the umpire (Davis, p. 540). This characteristic makes them heroic because they place themselves in a very unenviable position. No one would dare go against their team. From day one, when they were drafted or hired to play for the team they were taught to play as one and that no individual must rise above the group.
It is also important to belabor the point regarding the fact that a whistleblower must be from the inside. This is not only to make heroes out of them but more importantly it is the only way that they can expose and confront their organization – by being privy to information. An outsider can report on possible unethical practices that he or she may feel is happening within the walls of a particular organization but can never obtain the evidence that will support this claim. An investigator, reporter and law enforcer needed the help of an insider if they want to prosecute and punish those who committed a crime or violated civil laws.
Aside from the fact that an insider is the only one who will have access to information and has the credibility to expose wrongdoing within an organization there is also another reason why whistleblowing must be limited only to an insider, experts are saying that it is their proximity to unethical behavior that prompted them to report on these activities. One researcher even put it this way, “…the activity of whistleblowing is inextricably linked to corruption; corruption typically provides the occasion and justification for whistleblowing.” (Miller, p. 70).
Describing the Obvious
While it is true that whistleblowing is linked to corruption, the statement made by Miller can be interpreted in a different way. For instance, others may be confused as to why the author had to state something so obvious. If his purpose in saying so is to highlight something extremely important then he is welcome to do just that, however, his statement can also confuse others thinking he may have something else in mind.
If the reader will indulge Miller then without a doubt corruption is the only reason why whistleblowing exists. This is the cause-and-effect phenomenon associated with whistleblowing. And yet there are still questions that have to be thrown out there into the discussion to clarify Miller’s arguments even further. The first set of questions concern the nature of corruption. What does he mean by corruption? As many well-aware lawyers can split hairs when it comes to the definition of corruption. Is stealing a small amount of money considered corruption? Does it have to be particular amount? What is the level of potential danger that can and must prompt an insider to blow the whistle?
The second set of questions concerns the real agenda of the whistleblower. Is there a possibility of blowing the whistle against the company for other reasons aside from the evidence of corruption and other fraudulent acts? Is it possible that an employee will blow the whistle because of spite? Is it possible for an employee to speak lies against the company because of personal reasons and not the presence of any kind of wrongdoing within the organization?
It is not surprising to find out that the answer to these questions is yes. Not even Miller’s qualifier – that a whistleblower can only be considered as such if he or she believes that a threatened or actual reprisal will occur after disclosure – can prevent others from erroneously labeling an employee with a grudge as a whistleblower. It simply means that corruption alone is not the only factor that can trigger this phenomenon.
Since the answers to the above-mentioned questions are all in the affirmative then this considerably weakens the argument of Miller. Theoretically speaking, Miller’s assertion that corruption is the major prerequisite for whistleblowing is not always true. Yet still, there are ways to bolster his argument and even help clarify the connection between blowing the whistle and corruption.
Coming to the aid of Miller is De George who had done pioneering work in the said subject matter. He said that there are certain criteria that must be present within an organization that can justify the blowing of the whistle so to speak and this is what he said:
The firm, through its product or policy, will do serious and considerable harm to the public, whether in the person of the user of its product, an innocent bystander, or the general public (De George, p. 135)
There are still some grey areas that have to be sorted out such as the meaning of the word serious; how serious can a problem escalate into in order to force an insider to go out of accepted channels of communication and betray the trust of the company? Even though there is still work to be done to polish the theoretical framework of De George, one has to admit that he has created a standard that will allow the discussion to move forward.
However, the first bump in the road can be felt after examining another qualifier that came from Miller. He said that even the presence of corruption and highly illegal acts and the subsequent action of an insider to report on the crime does not constitute “real” whistleblowing because the one who allegedly took a stand against corruption was simply doing it to create a mechanism that will help protect him or her after authorities find out about it or until a “real” whistleblower comes up the plate and expose everything. Miller cited the case of Sherron Watkins. There was already evidence that Enron was in trouble, this would have been very clear to an insider like Watkins, who was vice president for corporate development, who then proceed to write a letter to his boss outlining some of her concerns regarding some of the questionable schemes within Enron. Miller believed that this is not whistleblowing but self-protection.
Pressure builds up
There is another theory that has to be dealt with and again it comes from Miller who seem to suggest that whistleblowers are special in the sense that they have the capability to detect wrongdoing and then afterwards also have the ability to go against the organization for the sake of rectifying what is considered immoral and unjust. Miller, in his attempt to vividly illustrate the recklessness of sacrificing whistleblowers to the altar of corruption made an effort to compare them to canaries used by miners to test if there is poison in the tunnels and this is what he said, “The whistleblower is sensitive to wrongdoing before its existence percolates through to management” (Miller, p. 157).
There are at least two things that are problematic about Miller’s illustration of the canary being used as a poison detector. First, there is no one who can say for certain that it is the whistleblower who was the first to find out. It can be argued that more often than not it is not the whistleblowers who were the first to uncover illegal activities but they are simply the one who made the information public. Therefore, no employee must carry the burden all alone. The implication of this argument is that the lone whistleblower is not needed because members of the team who are aware of violations can band together and make their concerns known. Nevertheless, it is also a fact that many chose to keep quiet instead of taking a deliberate step to address corruption.
Rounding off the Discussion
What seemed to be a very simple disclosure regarding the nature of whistleblowing – that high-level corruption gave rise to whistleblowing – turned out to be a challenging topic to discuss. For example there were qualifiers that were identified beforehand, to properly determine the existence of a “true” whistleblower, but now some of these are no longer applicable in certain situations. This has weakened the argument of some researchers who are trying to understand the phenomenon of whistleblowing. However, there are also situations wherein Miller, De George, and Davis are correct in their general assertions that corruption is clearly linked to whistleblowing.
It has become clear that whistleblowers are not simply the byproduct of corrupt organizations but corrupt organizations wherein everyone – except a few morally courageous heroes – are afraid to speak out the truth. Corruption no matter how prevalent can never automatically produce a whistleblower as seem to be suggested by Miller. There are many corrupt governments and fraudulent corporations that did not produce a single whistleblower. If Miller is correct then Enron can be singled out as an example wherein no one knew of what was going on inside the organization up until it was already too late.
Although a degree of corruption is needed to force a whistleblower to go against his or her own company, it can also be argued that theoretically speaking, whistleblowing can occur even without any evidence of gross misconduct. However, qualifiers can be used to limit the usage of the term “whistleblowers” and when this is the case then it is true that whistleblowing is indeed linked to high-level corruption. But it must also be pointed out that even the presence of anti-corruption systems will never silence a whistleblower. It is therefore erroneous to think that a perfect system that provides checks and balances is all that is needed to stop corruption. This is because it was discovered in the course of the discussion that whistleblowers are not the most sensitive personnel when it comes to sending out corruption, they are just the only people who are willing to stake it all for the sake of truth and justice. Society needs more men and women like them working within organizations so that fraudulent acts can be nipped in the bud and not allowed to escalate even further.
- Davis, Michael. Whistleblowing. De George, Richard. Whistleblowing. W.M. Hoffman & R. E. Frederick (eds.) Business Ethics: Readings and Cases in Corporate Morality. New York, 1995.
- Johnson, Roberta. Whistleblowing: When it Works and Why. Colorado: Lynne Rienner Publishers, Inc., 2003.
- Miller, Seumas. Corruption and Anti-corruption: An Applied Philosophical Approach. Prentice Hall, 2005.