Whistleblowing (or whistle-blowing) occurs when a member of an organization reports practices, under control of the organization, that are perceived to be illegal, immoral, or in some way illegitimate. Whistle-blower reports of organizational wrongdoing are increasingly making news headlines (e.g., fraud, corruption, and other unethical acts in organizations like Enron, WorldCom, Arthur Andersen, and Tyco). Such reports are more frequently made by members of the accused organization such as employees, board members, or internal auditors, rather than by external auditing agencies. These individuals, referred to as whistle-blowers, risk retaliation both by their organization (via job loss, demotion, or harassment) and sometimes even by the public (character assassinations, accusations of being spies or squealers) in their efforts to expose perceived transgressions.
Although whistle-blowers typically have access to both internal (supervisor, internal affairs investigator, human resources director) and external (external auditing agency, news media, lawyer) channels by which to report an organizational transgression, nearly all of them initially attempt to report wrongdoing through internal channels. Although this means of whistle-blowing is less threatening to the organization (external reports often result in great public scrutiny or legal intervention), whistle-blower reports are frequently buried or ignored. When appropriately handled, whistle-blowing can be beneficial to the organization, especially when it results in the cessation of practices that would otherwise harm employees and consumers or negatively affect the reputation of the organization.
Predictors and Correlates of Whistle-Blowing
Three categories of variables are relevant to the whistle-blowing process and may serve as predictors of whistle-blowing actions: whistle-blower characteristics, whistle-blowing context, and aspects of the wrongdoing and wrongdoer.
Whistle-blower Characteristics Associated With Whistle-blowing
A variety of personal characteristics related to the decision to engage in whistle-blowing have been examined and include whistle-blower demographics (age, sex, level of education, level of job held, etc.), personality variables (i.e., locus of control), morality (i.e., ethical judgment), and other characteristics, such as job performance, organizational commitment, role responsibility to blow the whistle, and approval of whistle-blowing. Although results seem to differ slightly across studies, the results of a recent meta-analytic review of the extant literature suggest whistle-blowers (as compared with inactive observers) appear to be male, have good job performance, be more highly educated, hold higher-level or supervisory positions, score higher on tests of moral reasoning, and value whistle-blowing in the face of unethical behavior. Whistle-blowers are also more likely to report a role-related responsibility or obligation to blow the whistle. Age and organizational tenure as predictors of whistle-blowing have yielded mixed results.
Contextual Factors Associated With Whistle-blowing
Compared with the personal characteristics of whistle-blowers, contextual variables appear to better predict whistle-blowing decisions. Relevant variables may include supervisor and coworker support, organizational climate, threat of retaliation, and organization size. Potential whistle-blowers who perceive a threat of retaliation by the organization, immediate supervisors, or coworkers are much less likely to blow the whistle than those who do not perceive a retaliatory climate; perceptions of supervisor or top management support are instrumental in the decision to blow the whistle. Whistle-blowing also occurs more frequently in organizations where whistle-blowing is valued and where the whistle-blower and organization are value congruent.
Characteristics of Wrongdoing or Wrongdoer Associated With Whistle-blowing
Evidence suggests that characteristics of the wrongdoing, such as perceived severity of the wrongdoing, evidence of wrongdoing, or characteristics of the wrongdoer, such as the likability of the wrongdoer, may have significant implications in whistle-blowing decisions. Potential whistle-blowers also seek to gather solid evidence of the transgression before taking any action. Whistle-blowing occurs more frequently when the whistle-blower has been personally affected by the wrongdoing. External claims are especially likely when the organization depends on the continuation of the wrongdoing.
Predictors and Correlates of Retaliation against Whistle-Blowers
Retaliation against a whistle-blower may take many forms, ranging from attempted coercion of the whistle-blower to withdraw accusations to outright exclusion from the organization. Other retaliatory acts may include organizational attempts to undermine the complaint process, isolation of the whistle-blower, character defamation, imposition of hardship or disgrace on the whistle-blower, exclusion from meetings, elimination of perquisites, and other forms of discrimination or harassment. Retaliation may be motivated by the organization’s desire to silence the whistle-blower completely, prevent a full public knowledge of the complaint, discredit the whistle-blower, or discourage other potential whistle-blowers from taking action.
Organizational response to whistle-blower action (retaliation, reward, no action) depends in part on whether management agrees with the merit of the claim and the whistle-blower’s right to take action. Organizations that value the perceived ethicality of their practices and those that value report of unsanctioned practices are more likely to reward than retaliate against a whistle-blower. Under circumstances wherein an organization is dependent on the continuation of the wrongdoing or when it is not dependent on the whistle-blower, the organization is likely to both retaliate and continue the wrongdoing.
Importantly, retaliation is not always initiated by organizational top management. Sometimes acts of retaliation are initiated by a supervisor or coworker with or without the approval of top management. Supervisors may be motivated to retaliate against whistle-blowers for many reasons, but they frequently do so out of fear that a whistle-blowing claim signals their inability to maintain order and compliance within their departments or the fear that valid complaints will result in the restriction or cessation of their own operations or influence. Potential predictors of retaliation against whistle-blowers may relate to characteristics of the whistle-blower, actions taken by the whistle-blower, contextual variables associated with the climate in which the transgression occurred, and characteristics of the wrongdoing.
Characteristics of the Whistle-blower Associated With Retaliation
Whistle-blower characteristics potentially predictive of retaliation include age, education level, job level, role responsibility to report transgressions, and value congruence with the organization. Demographic characteristics of whistle-blowers are thought to be less predictive of retaliation than are contextual variables. Research suggests, however, that individuals who blow the whistle because it is their job to do so, because of an audit or role responsibility, are less likely to be retaliated against and are more likely to be successful in stopping the transgression. Similarly, older whistle-blowers are more likely to be retaliated against than are younger whistle-blowers. Research suggests whistle-blowers who are valuable to their organization (because of age, experience, education, job level) are more likely to be retaliated against than are their less valuable counterparts. Finally, whistle-blowers whose values regarding right and wrong are incongruent with those of the organization are more likely to be retaliated against, presumably because top management does not deem the act to be as severe as is perceived by the whistle-blower.
Actions Taken by the Whistle-blower Associated With Retaliation
Specific actions taken by a whistle-blower during the process of making a claim may also influence whether and to what extent retaliation occurs. Such actions may include whether the whistle-blower used an internal or external channel to report wrongdoing, whether the whistle-blower attempted to remain anonymous, how successful the whistle-blower was in ultimately curbing the wrongdoing, and whether others in the organization ignored the wrongdoing. Research suggests that when a whistle-blower reports wrongdoing through external channels, he or she is more likely to receive retaliation; and such retaliation is likely to be more severe than when internal channels are used. Similarly, whistle-blowers who unsuccessfully attempted to remain anonymous during the whistle-blowing process are more likely to experience retaliation. Inconsistent results have been reported regarding the effectiveness of the whistle-blower in curbing wrongdoing and experience of retaliation; however, the preponderance of research suggests that the majority of whistle-blowers are unsuccessful in exacting desired changes.
Contextual Variables Associated With Retaliation
Contextual variables examined in relation to retaliation include top management, supervisor, and coworker support, as well as organizational climate for whistle-blowing. Lack of support by supervisors and top management is predictive of retaliation against whistle-blowers. Similarly, in organizations where whistle-blowing is not sanctioned, coworkers are typically less willing to give the whistle-blower support or protection from retaliation, thus contributing to its occurrence.
Characteristics of the Wrongdoing Associated With Retaliation
Aspects of the wrongdoing potentially associated with retaliation include the frequency of the wrongdoing, its severity, and the whistle-blower’s evidence of wrongdoing. When wrongdoing is widespread within the organization or when the organization is dependent on its continuation, top management is more likely to lash out at the whistle-blower. When a whistle-blower’s report cites multiple incidents of wrongdoing, multiple individuals involved in the wrongdoing, or multiple sources of evidence, potential for retaliation is reduced.
Whistle-blowing on organizational wrongdoing has become increasingly publicized, and its potential to positively affect the organization and its constituents has been highlighted. Whistle-blowing assists organizations and federal agencies in halting practices that would otherwise harm employees and consumers. Unfortunately, many whistle-blowers fear and even suffer retaliation after reporting organizational transgressions. Organizations may do well to actively encourage whistle-blowing claims on unsanctioned and illegitimate practices through the following actions:
- Reaffirming the organization’s commitment to ethical practices
- Promising protection from retaliation
- Enumerating the protocol for issuing whistle-blowing claims
- Communicating the process by which claims are investigated
- Reviewing the types of activities or practices considered by the organization to be unethical or unsanctioned
- Issuing an overt request that unsanctioned practices be reported
To be effective, however, the organization must ensure that these espoused ethical values are consistent with the values enacted on a daily basis and that internal reporting channels are both free from leaks and staffed by trustworthy individuals.
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