Image: Gustave Doré, The Walls of Jericho Fall Down, via
Wikimedia Commons. When companies discourage employees
from reporting problems internally, those problems fester,
exposing the firm to catastrophic damage when somebody
finally blows the whistle externally.

The term whistleblowing  has come to describe a wide range of disclosures, both within organizations (e.g., employees reporting misconduct to supervisors) and outside organizations (e.g., employees reporting misconduct to media and the government). Internal whistleblowing can be very valuable for an organization;  reports of misconduct, given early and taken seriously, can avert disaster. Alternately, public whistleblowing has toppled and shamed many organizations (Miceli & Near, 1984). Just think how much better off Penn State University would be today had any of the people with doubts about Jerry Sandusky’s behavior stepped forward—and been heeded—in the 1990s.

Research suggests that it’s usually very difficult to report wrongdoing in organizations. Among the main reasons people fail to report are fear of retaliation for reporting, and the belief that nothing will be done. Why stick your neck out if you think it’s a lose-lose situation? 

Conversely, those who do report say that they did so because they felt supported by managers and coworkers, they believed something would be done, and they were able to report anonymously. For those who do report, most people prefer to handle issues within the organization before venturing outside, and most will go to their direct supervisor first (Ethics Resource Center, 2012). Recently, protection for certain types of whistleblowing (e.g., material financial misconduct in corporations, misconduct that defrauds the government, etc.) has increased with legislation such as the U.S. False Claims Act, Sarbanes-Oxley and the creation of the Office of the Whistleblower by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC).


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  • Protect your whistleblowers. According to a study from the Ethics Resource Center (2013), 21% of internal whistleblowers reported retaliation from within their organizations for whistleblowing. Retaliation deters future whistleblowers; therefore, organizations need to design systems to both protect reporters and punish retaliators. For example, some organizations follow those who report wrongdoing over time to ensure that their careers are not derailed.

  • Develop and maintain robust ethics and compliance programs: Strong ethics and compliance programs appear to be one way to address the retaliation problem. The Ethics Resource Center study also found that retaliation was associated with huge decreases in employee engagement, increased intentions to leave the organization, and increased intentions to take concerns outside of the organization. 



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  • What is the incidence of whistleblowing? It is difficult to know how much whistleblowing (both internal and external) actually occurs. We tend to hear only about the highest profile cases, and many academic studies report only on people's beliefs about whether they would blow the whistle, rather than actual behavior. Arguably the best and most recent information available comes from the National Business Ethics Survey conducted by the Ethics Resource Center (2011), finding that nearly half of US employees observed some form of misconduct in the workplace within the past year. About two-thirds of those who observed misconduct said that they reported it.

  • How do individual characteristics predict whistleblowing intentions and behavior? A recent meta-analysis by Mesmer-Magnus & Viswesvaram (2005) finds that employees who are female,  employees who are more satisfied with their jobs, and employees with longer tenure are somewhat more likely to say that they have reported observed misconduct.

  • What are the situational characteristics that predict whistleblowing? The Mesmer-Magnus & Viswesvaram (2005) study mentioned above demonstrates that a supportive climate for whistleblowing is associated with both intentions to report and actual reporting behavior. The study also shows that the threat of retaliation reduces intention to report but (in contrast to the National Business Ethics Survey results) not actual reporting behavior. This is a surprising finding requiring further investigation.

  • What characteristics of wrongdoing predict whistleblowing? Results of the meta-analysis show a relationship between the seriousness of the misconduct and both reported intentions and behavior.

  • What personality characteristics predict whistleblowing? Dalton & Radtke (2013) found that people who score high on the trait of machiavellianism (being selfish, manipulative, and deceptive) are less likely to report wrongdoing by others. However, that was true only in a weak ethical environment, where reporting carries more risk. In a strong ethical environment everyone was more likely to report wrongdoing, and the difference between people low and high on machiavellianism disappeared

  • How much retaliation against whistleblowing actually occurs and how does fear of retaliation influence reporting? While there is still more research to be done in this area, the best current information comes from a​ retaliation-focused report issued by the Ethics Resource Center in 2012 based on their 2011 National Business Ethics Survey. According to that study, nearly 25% of the employees who said they reported misconduct claimed to have experienced some form of retaliation. Interestingly, those numbers have increased since the Ethics Resource Center began studying retaliation in 2007. Those employees who reported to either higher management rather than to their direct supervisor, or to a hotline were more likely to say that they experienced retaliation. However, those who worked in organizations with strong ethics and compliance programs were less likely to report retaliation.



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  • Are the predictors of internal whistleblowing and external whistleblowing the same?

  • Do rewards increase whistleblowing? Rewards have become a part of a number of whistleblower protection laws but it is unclear whether and to what extent individuals consider monetary benefit when deciding whether or not to whistleblow (i.e., to external authorities).

  • What more can be done to help people feel safe and empowered to speak up about organizational problems and can people’s willingness and ability to “voice their values” be increased? Work by Mary Gentile and colleagues suggests that people often know what’s right but do not feel empowered to act accordingly the context of organizational life, possibly including reporting misconduct.



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Books and Articles

  • The National Whistleblower’s Center is a nonprofit organization that provides education and advocacy.

  • Ethics Resource Center (2012). “Inside the Mind of a Whistleblower.” A supplemental report of the 2011 National Business Ethics Survey.

  • Ethics Resource Center (2012). “Retaliation: When Whistleblowers Become Victims.” A supplemental report of the 2011 National Business Ethics Survey.

  • Miceli, M.P., Near, J.P., & Dworkin, T.M. (2008). Whistleblowing in Organizations. NY: Routledge. Gives a thorough review of the research through 2007. (public library)

  • Mesmer-Magnus, J.R. & Viswesvaran, C. 2005. Whistleblowing in organizations: An examination of correlates of whistleblowing intentions, actions, and retaliation. Journal of Business Ethics, 62, 277-297. A meta-analysis (study of studies) of the correlates of whistleblowing intentions, actions, and retaliation. It reviews the research statistically and resolves some longstanding issues in the field.

  • Miceli, M.P. & Near, J.P. (1984). The relationships among beliefs, organizational position, and whistle-blowing status: a discriminant analysis. Academy of Management Journal, 27(4), 687-705.

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This page is edited by Linda Treviño. Other researchers may have contributed content.
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