Ethics and whistleblowing
Posted: 10th January 2012
Whistleblowing is a valuable tool in any organisation’s corporate governance strategy as it empowers employees to act on incidences of misconduct and help maintain a safe workplace, while protecting profits and reputation.
But is whistleblowing ethical? Such conversations provide great scope for dizzying philosophies – but let’s keep it simple for the moment – surely at base level, altruistically reporting wrongdoing must be ethical? The act of whistleblowing can cause a conflict of interest between the personal, organisational and societal spheres. Much of this conflict stems from the context that one views a whistleblower – as someone sharing knowledge of misconduct for the benefit of others or someone who is a ‘grass’ and acting ‘disloyal’ to their organisation.
The ‘Broken Windows’ theory championed by former Mayor of New York, Rudolph Giuliani, promotes an ideology where communities will report or fix a broken window, rectifying even the smallest incidents of wrongdoing, thereby instilling similar responsibilities in others and creating a better environment for all. Advocating whistleblowing within organisations follows a similar premise. By fostering a culture of self-regulation and accountability, management can help ensure their staff and business operations are protected.
Public perception of ethics and whistleblowing
Whistleblowing can be a divisive topic and, while most would agree with the value of reporting wrongdoing and condone good organisational governance, external contexts can colour acceptance and perception. There are elements of chicken and egg as attitudes that are encouraged in the work place extend to the street – if businesses promote good corporate governance for all, whistleblowing needn’t be viewed negatively or as solely the preserve of business or community leaders.
In 2007, a survey commissioned by the US Democracy Corps of 1014 “likely voters” revealed that 70% supported whistleblower protections and 40% stated that they would be much more likely to vote for a congress that enacts such legislation. When we vote, use services or entrust our money with banks we want to know that they are secure and working in our best interests (although the latter example might stick in your throat somewhat!). If an engineer at a water sanitation plant in your area uncovered safety issues we would hope they had ample opportunity to report this without fear of reprisal; avoiding danger and incident and allowing for the company in question to assess and improve their practices.
Personal perception of ethics and whistleblowing
The whistleblower is ultimately torn between loyalty to their employer (or the subject of their revelation) and their moral commitment to the law and society at large. Many feel they have the most to lose, at least in the first instance. It could be argued that it is incongruous with human nature to display loyalty to a bureaucratic organisation because it is composed of so many different people. This dehumanising environment could distort the whistleblower’s perception of their relevance within a company or their ability to influence change, thus degrading their sense of responsibility and motivation to report.
As long as the whistleblower is sure that their motivations are sound and that they are confident in the system they should not hesitate to relay such information and be pleased that they are helping to create a safer working environment for their colleagues.
Whistleblowers and the media have enjoyed a somewhat symbiotic relationship. ‘Though agendas and motivations may vary, they share the ambition of exposing wrongdoing and encouraging changes in systems that aren’t working in the interests of those they are supposed to protect. Recent high profile cases, such as the care homes scandal, are excellent examples of individuals reporting for altruistic reasons – but if a whistleblower appears to be seeking a soapbox for public attention or engineering an act of retaliation, it is of paramount importance that the investigative body in question ensures that the case is conducted in the correct way and that a message of intolerance is clear. If an individual feels disenfranchised by their position in the process, to transfer it to the public sphere might seem their best or only option. It’s up to business and community leaders to ensure this does not happen.
Corporate perception of ethics and whistleblowing
Even if an organisation has a whistleblowing hotline in place they should not be complacent when it comes to its usage and communication. If a company doesn’t receive many whistleblowing reports they shouldn’t assume that no news is good news (read more about communicating your whistleblowing hotline service). In addition, if companies don’t use the data collected from their reports in a progressive manner (analysing trends, investigation and resolution etc) it negates the benefits of the service considerably. Businesses have a responsibility to the public to act on whistleblowing intelligence or risk adverse consequences. They are additionally accountable to the governing bodies of their sector such as the FSA, HSE and of course the Ministry of Justice. Where there are environmental concerns arising from a whistleblowing report, these too must be addressed with the correct authorities.
There are isolated instances where whistleblowing could be considered the wrong course of action in an ethical context; the Republicans branded Bradley Manning, the Wikileaks informant, a terrorist and whipped the media and public into a frenzy regarding breaches of national security. This of course is an extreme case and it is unlikely that whistleblowing cases made in a corporate context will ever mirror this level of drama. But, no matter what size or sector, businesses cannot afford to allow a culture of misconduct and corruption to infiltrate operations.
It might seem obvious as an employee of a market-leading hotline provider to believe in the ethics of whistleblowing – but personal politics aside, it is true to say that individual ethics are born of a culture of ethics and no matter what your personal take on whistleblowing in this realm, that assertion, at least, is undeniable.