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The Rise of Whistle Blowers

Whistleblowing is a common term used to describe someone (often an employee) who exposes and reports confidential or private information to the media or legal authorities. Generally, the motivation behind this is to expose inappropriate, unsafe, criminal or unethical activities that are being hidden from the public. Historically, the reasons for whistleblowing revolved around ethical foundations, but these days there is also a lot of money involved in the process. This article is going to take an objective look at whistleblowing and underscore the reasons behind its rise and prevalence today. It provides explanations and a number of examples from both America and Europe in order to illustrate the key points.

How do whistle blowers contribute?

The major contribution that comes from whistle blowers (in the valid use of the term) is ethical. Whistle blowing is used to expose or show an unethical set of practices occurring in an organisation or company. The long-term effects should be to alter the corporate or organizational behaviour. Generally, the goal of the whistle blower is to expose policies or behaviour that they want to be stopped and reversed. Whistleblowing can be internal or external. An example of internal whistleblowing inside a company would be to denounce any irregularities that have been observed, by speaking to a higher-level manager. The goal here would be to remedy the behaviour or policy via internal measures that the company has set up. There are time times when the general public might not class this as whistleblowing, but the principle is the same. External whistleblowing is what the public are most used to hearing about when this term is used. It refers to an employee engaging with an external, outside authority when the issue could not be resolved internally, or when the employee knows that only an external authority can really take action on the matter. This is when the employee “blows the whistle” on the company or organization.

The contribution made is to alert the outside authorities and the media (and therefore the public) if need be. This has the knock on effect of usually altering the corporate environment in which the company operates, and it can lead to new legislation in certain circumstances. There are now many organizations that welcome internal “whistleblowing” as they have two aims in mind. Firstly, they want to eliminate and prevent any possible internal irregularities, in particular those that relate to discipline at work. The second chief aim is to build an image of a responsible company that is able and ready to assume the errors that have been made and deal with them. These days companies and organizations want to be seen as transparent and ethical in order to build their image in the eyes of the public.

Are there any incentives for whistleblowing?

In the past it was known that whistle blowers almost always suffered for their actions. In fact, this may have been the reason that so many people remained silent when they wanted to speak out against immoral or criminal acts that they observed. As such, many people decided to keep their concerns internal or just keep them to themselves. However, times have now changed and whistle blowers can now be compensated for their actions and their decision to speak out against a company, government office or other organization. This change in the landscape has made whistle blowing much more common. As such, we are now seeing regular reports in the media of people who have decided to break cover and expose an issue to the general public. In order to show how widespread the compensation is for whistle blowers, let’s use an example from the IRS. The IRS has recently expanded its program of protection and reward, and it is prepared to offer whistle blowers from fifteen to thirty per cent of anything that it recovers, based on the information provided. This can offer a much great incentive for people to come forward and expose serious criminal activity or unethical practices. These days there are people able to earn six or seven figures by sharing their story. This money can be earned from the IRS, lawsuits, private equity firms, arbitration panels and hedge funds.

There was a case in the USA involving the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority [FINRA], who awarded whistle blower Michelle Ford, a former broker with Affinity Federal Credit Union, compensatory damages of $825,000. This demonstrates the financial incentive of whistleblowing. Also, these days whistleblowing does not necessarily lead to the ending of an employees career. Over the years, there has been a great deal of legislations passed in order to protect the rights of whistle blowers. This is in stark contrast to just a few decades ago when there was little protection against company retaliation for whistle blowers. This legislation has now added an increased incentive to expose unethical activities, negligent behaviour, unsafe working conditions and criminal activity. Legislation has been brought in that gives the employee the right to file a lawsuit against their employer if they suffer retaliation after “blowing the whistle”. Specifically, there is the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA), which is to protect employees who have “blown the whistle” on unsafe or unhealthy working conditions. This was brought in by President Nixon in 1970. There is also the Federal False Claims Act (FFCA), which enables employees to report an employer who is illicitly using federal funding. There are also other pieces of legislation that deal with other similar and related issues.

For or against whistle blowing

There are advocates on both sides of the whistleblowing argument. There are those who believe that where a legal contract has been signed, it should be upheld and anything other than this is a breach of trust and contract. Such people argue in favour of dismissing “whistleblowing employees” as they have broken their contract. However, there are also arguments stating that privacy can be sacrificed when it is in the public good. They further argue that without whistle blowers, the public would not know which companies they could trust, or what really goes on behind closed doors. It is important to consider how whistle blowers are now viewed. Many times, they are thought of as a “snitch”, “backstabber”, “lowlife” who is not worthy of trust or responsibility. Many people also see such people are simply out for personal gain, and think that all whistleblowing revolves around money or power. However, on the flip side of that argument, are those who see whistle blowers are moral heroes, or “saviours” who help everyone out from a sense of selfless duty. There are those that are viewed as representing a major step forward for the public good, and bring unscrupulous activities out into the open. Such people can be seen as guardians of the general public.

Do we need whistle blowers?

In terms of doing good, whistle-blowers can certainly uncover and expose fraud and wrongdoing in companies and organizations. For example, consider Sherron Watkins who exposed the fraudulent financial reporting of Enron, and was viewed as hero for doing so. Another example from America is Cynthia Cooper who exposed financial irregularities at WorldCom. There is also the case of Coleen Rowley who detailed the unethical FBI cover-up of terrorist activity in the U.S. prior to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. There are further examples from Europe. In 1998, Swiss sports administrator and International Olympic Committee member Marc Hodler revealed corruption in the IOC. There is also the case of executive Stanley Adams who alerted the European Commission to anti-competitive practices by Swiss-based pharmaceutical giant Hoffmann-La Roche. The Commission later fined Hoffmann for abuse of its dominant position in the bulk vitamin market.

The personal ethical reasons behind whistleblowing are also very strong. Most people would like to think that they would speak out if they saw something that was clearly wrong. It is a matter of integrity and moral fortitude. As such, in certain circumstances it is clear that whistleblowing has proven to be the best form of action to take. It is also important to take into account the times when whistle blowing can cause more serious consequences. This is one of the major issues involved in the current WikiLeaks scandal. The U.S. government states that the leaking of confidential, classified military documents put the lives of front line troops and diplomats in immediate danger. The documents that have been released to the pubic via the Internet were given by Army intelligence Spec. Bradley Manning. They allege many things such as cover-ups of large numbers of civilians killed, that the Taliban had heat seeking missiles and so on. While many people find such information horrendous, and feel they were lied to, they also believe that the public should not be given access to it, especially during wartime. They claim that as the information is released to the general public (meaning anyone with an internet connection), it puts the lives of military personnel in danger. That further claims that as per the Second World War, the information of a confidential nature should not be made public until many years after the war is over. As such, it can also be shown that there is line that should not be crossed when whistle blowing. These are the issues that the person should weigh up before deciding to reveal information or not. There is also a case to be made for new laws to be passed in order to protect the lives of people in danger from leaks of information.

Anonymity

It should be noted that whistle blowers can be protected by anonymity, if the person choses to take this route. This can be done by placing certain calls to certain phone numbers, which are set up for whistleblowing purposes. However, there are some issues that come along with anonymity. For example, the person may be poorly understood or not understood at all. Such a person may not be able to clearly get their message across or deliver all of the facts, if they keep their identity private. At some stage, most whistle blowers need to reveal information of a personal nature in order to substantiate claims or make facts credible. This is the issue faced when anonymity is preferred. On another note, when whistle blowing can be done in an anonymous fashion (which many organizations have now set up internally), the motivation can move from a moral one to a personal release of frustrations. For example, someone in an office who sees a colleague taking a longer lunch break than they are entitled to. Another issue when anonymity is required is the long-term result. For example, if the situation becomes serious enough, the person may have to break cover and go public in order to reveal confidential information that the company deems confidential. This raises the issue of ethics. As such, this issue can place the whistle blower in an uneasy situation. Many people may want to reveal information that they deem to be unethical or illegal but fear their name or face being made public. Many people shy away from any limelight (especially of this nature) and therefore prefer to remain silent unless their identity can be hidden.

The Internet and whistleblowing resources

The Internet offers a huge range of informative articles and resources for people that are interested in becoming a whistle blower. There is actually a growing community of people who have an interest in helping other whistle blowers, and the range of websites supports this assertion. There are many websites that can be found online via the search engines, which give government information about whistleblowing, and how such activities relate to legislation. One of the most exhaustive is California’s Bureau of State Audits that tells people how to access the state Whistle blower Hotline. Besides the government sites, there are also independent organizations that show people who to get started in the process, and bring up various issues that people should be aware of. They also link to other organizations that may help whistle blowers depending on the nature of the issue and the industry involved.

There are many websites that encourage people to become whistle blowers, and do so on the theme of ethics. They position the “little guy” against the “goliath” and urge people to be truthful and keep business, industry and government honest. On top of this re the websites that advocate strongly for freedom of speech, and the value of open, public scrutiny of government and business practices. The ethical issues are the most common theme through these websites. For example there is the issue that people should protect their colleagues, neighbours and the taxpayers. There are comments about moral commitments, and the issue of divided loyalties. For example, one writer points out that the whistle blower will need to consider the issue of loyalty to his family in the face of career risks associated with whistleblowing. This is then contrasted with the loyalty to the law, public trust and to the community. The emphasis is continually placed on doing the right thing, in contrast to just doing the legal thing. This is where both side of the whistle blowing argument come to a head and where many disagree. There are very good ethical issues raised by the Government Accountability Project, which asks if silence is complicity. Such a questions leads one to consider that if he or she does not speak out then assistance and approval might be inferred and given implicitly. There are certain websites that try to offer guilt as a means to motivate people, but of those read, the majority offer a theme of caution and general encouragement.

Internet whistle blowing

The Internet certainly offers a new way in which to examine and consider whistleblowing. It gives the average person many more tools and resources so that they know exactly what they are getting into, and what support they can gain, if any. The websites also provide information about how to remain as anonymous as possible and what the chances of success and privacy really are. With the Internet, anyone can now be a whistle blower with a worldwide audience. This is something that was not possible even two decades ago. If someone has the conviction to make information public then there is very little that can stop him or her. With the viral nature of the Internet, the information can be stored on computer servers all around the world inside hours, and it cannot be removed easily. This is how the WikiLeaks information has spread in such a short time, and why even the government of the United States of America cannot stop the information from being made available.

A precedent has now been set which is likely to give confidence to other people who have a similar agenda to the founders of WikiLeaks. This whistle blowing event has really shown how the Internet gives a level platform for all people to produce their own information, even in the face of government condemnations and attempts at removal. The Internet allows whistle blowers to have an opportunity to make their case, and thereby pursue a course of action that is in line with their own ethical and moral convictions. This is really the end goal of whistle blowers and the phenomenon is likely to continue into the future.


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