Whistle blowing refers to any time that a member of an organization (or a former member) tells someone else about an illegal or immoral practice, if the telling is done in the hope that someone will do something to change the practice. In the great majority of cases, employees tell someone within the organization and don’t want to cause any bad publicity for the organization—this is sometimes called internal whistle blowing, though we prefer to call this internal reporting

When organizations punish or discourage internal reporting, bad practices typically get worse, until someone—often motivated by conscience—feels they must notify the press, or a government agency. This is known as external whistle blowing, and it can mean serious problems for the organization.

From an Ethical Systems perspective, internal reporting is vital to the health of organizations. Companies that don’t make it easy for their employees to report small problems internally are likely to find themselves facing much larger problems externally. But there’s a common problem in organizations: people who speak up, even internally, are sometimes seen as traitors, or as people who are “not team players.” What can organizations do to overcome this problem and nurture a culture of trust in which everyone feels free to voice concerns?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Ideas to Apply

The organizational context strongly influences the whistle blowing process and experience. These 4 ethical action steps help make internal reporting work:

1. Leadership priorities 

 

2. Make ethics part of the core organizational values and encourage a culture of integrity

  • Establish a code of conduct and incorporate in recruitment materials, employee contracts and internal policies 
  • Bake the values and code into daily behavior in the organization

  • Be sure managers "walk the talk"

 

3. Create structures and systems that visibly protect and incentivize internal reporting, i.e. speaking truth to power and preventing sanctions

  • Be proactive about adhering to new legislative requirements such as Federal Sentencing Guidelines, the U.S. False Claims Act, and Sarbanes-Oxley.
  • Institute robust and effective Compliance and Ethics programs
 
 
4. Apply a systems approach, including:
 
The individual dimension

A recent study (Heumann, et. al., 2013)​ develops five differentiating whistleblower typologies, based on goals, motivations and context:
 

  1. The Altruist: The conscience of the organization
  2. The Avenger: Motivated by revenge or retribution
  3. Organization Man: Speaks up for the economic interests of the company
  4. The Alarmist: Notorious complainer, always looking for dire consequences, regardless of validity
  5. The Bounty Hunter: Seeks to make money through qui tam suits

Another study identifies the internal, ethical dilemmas between being loyal to the company and actively seeking justice (Waytz, et. al., 2013).

The organizational dimension 

Research has shown (Vadera, et. al., 2009) that the most important factors that influence reporting intentions and behavior include:

  1. ​Leadership

  2. Perceived support
  3. Organizational justice
  4. Organizational culture
  5. Type of organization
  6. Risk of retaliation

The legal dimension

Laws and rewards, like the SEC Whistleblower Program, can influence the whistleblower’s behavior, the process, and organizations.

  1. In the financial sector, the number of whistleblower tips received by the SEC has grown more than 20% since 2012. (SEC Annual Report, 2014)
  2. Further industries to be added shortly.​​​ 

Research and Resources

Research Entry Points

The National Business Ethics Survey® generates the U.S. benchmark on ethical behavior in American corporations

The latest report highlights the severe problems of reporting behavior and retaliation against whistle blowers.

An integrative analysis of past whistle blower research highlighting consistent and inconsistent findings

Vadera, A. K., Aguilera, R. V., and Caza, B. (2009). Making sense of whistle-blowing's antecedents: learning from research on identity and ethics programs. Business Ethics Quarterly, Vol. 19 (4), pp. 553-586

Comprehensive article about the quandary of becoming a whistle blower

The New York Times, Alina Tugend (September 20, 2013). Opting to Blow the Whistle or Choosing to Walk Away.

The impact of financial rewards for whistle blowers on American and multinational organizations

The Economist (2011, November 17). The Year of the Bounty Hunter.

TED Talk on ordinary people who dare to speak up in the name of progress

“The Dangers of Willful Blindness” - Margaret Heffernan

 

Organizations For Whistleblower Protection and Advocacy

Books

Journal Articles

Newspapers and Magazines

Videos

  • Whistleblowers share their experiences

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Case Studies

Downloadable Toolkits

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Further Learning

Visit our Whistleblowing playlist on YouTube Learn more about whistleblowing expert Linda Treviño  Read our research on Leadership