A New Approach to Examining Whistle-Blowing: The Influence of Cognitions and Anger

Article excerpt



Articles about whistle-blowing continue to appear on a regular basis in the popular press as well as in managerial publications and the academic literature (e.g., Delikat, 2007; Leonard, 2007; Rehg, Miceli, Near, and Van Scotter, 2008). Evidence shows that whistle-blowing occurs frequently, and that organizational wrongdoing is prevalent and can be very costly. For example, in 2006, cases of fraud in U.S.-based companies accounted for losses of $650 billion. One third of these cases were discovered through information from whistle-blowers. In fact, tips from whistle-blowers proved more effective in revealing fraud than any other methods, such as such as internal audits, internal controls, and external audits (Sweeney, 2008). However, reports about fraud are not the most common example of whistle-blowing. According to a comprehensive study of 277,000 calls to whistle-blowing hotlines from 2003-2007 in nine major U.S. industries, the greatest number of calls (50%) were about personnel management incidents (Security Executive Council, 2007).

Discussing whistle-blowing and the motivations of whistle-blowers can produce heated controversy. While some whistle-blowers may be viewed as courageous heroes, others can be viewed as disgruntled or selfish trouble-makers. Yet, regardless of one's personal views about whistle-blowing, managers and researchers must take an objective and focused perspective on this issue due to its legal, ethical, and practical imperatives (Barnett, 1992). For example, the U.S. based Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 has affected companies throughout the world and has important implications for whistle-blowing. This Act specifically instituted new protections for whistle-blowers, yet research continues to show that whistle-blowing usually results in unpleasant and unrewarding outcomes for whistle-blowers. Whistle-blowers often are viewed as finks instead of heroes; are retaliated against through personal threats; are ostracized, dismissed, or demoted; and often suffer in their careers due to damaged reputations (Delikat, 2007; Rosenblatt, 1997).

Given such common negative outcomes, why do certain individuals step up and decide to blow the whistle? This question has intrigued managers and researchers alike, because understanding the whistle-blowing decision-making process helps create policies and procedures resulting in the greatest ethical benefits for organizations and society. However, answering this question has proved challenging, and much still remains to be understood about whistle-blowing (Gundlach, Douglas, and Martinko, 2003; Near and Miceli, 2008).

Addressing this need, the purpose of this study is to further our understanding of whistle-blowing by examining it empirically with a new theoretical approach. Using attribution theory (Weiner, 1986, 1995, 2006), this study examines how specific cognitive and emotional responses to perceived workplace wrongdoing lead to whistle-blowing decisions. Specifically, we examine how judgments of responsibility about wrongdoing, perceptions of intention about wrongdoing, and feelings of anger about wrongdoing lead to decisions to blow the whistle. Based on our findings, we are able to provide managers and researchers with a better understanding of whistle-blowing. Furthermore, from a practical perspective, the implications of our research will help mangers review and update their policies in light of current management trends in whistle-blowing.

The paper proceeds as follows: we develop and articulate the hypotheses, present the methodology, and then discuss the implications of this research, note limitations of the study, and identify opportunities for future inquiry. In this third main section of the paper, we discuss the managerial implications of this research, which will be of special interest to practitioners.

Hypotheses Development

In this research, we applied attribution theory to the study of whistle-blowing to further understanding of this topic. …