Whistleblowing is a term which refers to the act of disclosure of malpractices or reporting of misconduct at work by current or former employees to people who are in a position to take action. It is necessary that the whistleblower is an insider for the company, otherwise they might be referred to as spies, moles or investigators. People whose job is to report malpractices, like auditors and inspectors, cannot be classified as whistleblowers.
The definition also presupposes a conflict of loyalties - loyalty to the employer and the duty to a principle or law. The etymology of the word is uncertain. Generally, it is believed to have originated as an allusion to police officers who blow their whistles when they spot a crime or to sports referees who do it to stop the game after a foul has been committed.
Whistleblowing can be divided into internal and external categories. The former takes place when the misconduct is reported to a person from the same organization and the information does not leave it. In this case, there is typically a break in the hierarchical chain and some of the direct superiors may be involved. External whistleblowing refers to information given to people outside the organization - a regulating agency, the press or public. Any act of whistleblowing can be either open, when the identity of the person giving the information is known, or anonymous. It is usually not difficult to discover the whistleblower, as in many organizations only a limited number of employees have access to a certain type of information.
The motivation of the whistleblower is an important factor to explore, with two contrasting views on the matter. The first claims that revealing the information is a vicious act caused by greed or spite, while the second justifies it as an altruistic drive to prevent misconduct at a high personal price, such as resentment from colleagues or a close surveillance of work. In most cases of whistleblowing there is a hint of both and the people involved also find it difficult to pinpoint their exact motivation to do it.
According to the National Whistleblowers Center, formed in 1988, the first evidence of whistleblowers in the United States dates back to 1777, when a group of sailors reported the first Commodore of the U.S. Navy and accused him of misconduct and of the ill-treatment of British soldiers. Amid concerns for the sailors, who feared they could face prosecution, the government decided to pass a law ensuring that all whistleblowers should be protected.
The federal Civil Service Reform Act of 1978 defines whistleblowing as "disclosure of a violation of law, rule or regulation, mismanagement, gross waste of funds, abuse of authority, or substantial and specific danger to public health or safety." It also includes protection of giving information on any kind of discrimination. The Act established an Office of the Special Counsel (OSC) within the authority of the Merit Systems Protection Board. The Whistleblower Protection Act of 1989 enforces the protection even more by granting the OSC independence.
The primary purpose of the OSC is to investigate the reported misconduct and to make sure that the person disclosing the information is not punished in any way by superiors or co-workers. Another means to facilitate malpractice disclosure is opening a hotline to The General Accounting Office, where various types of fraud, waste or abuse may be reported and subsequently investigated. In 2010, the Senate passed another act that enhanced protection of government employees who report on the aforementioned malpractices.
Furthermore, 34 states have statutes for whistleblowing protection, although they vary from state to state. In Louisiana, for example, the law protects only disclosure of violations of federal, state or local environmental laws and regulations, whereas New York only protects revealing violations that pose a serious threat to public health or safety. By contrast, Colorado protects reports on all activities that are not in the public interest and Pennsylvania extends the protection to disclosure of ethical codes breaks.
In 2011, the ruling in the case of Bunnatine "Bunny" Greenhouse and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers followed a six-year legal fight in which Greenhouse was awarded damages of USD 970,000. Greenhouse was demoted after she exposed problems relating to a government contract in Iraq. The U.S. District Court in Washington announced the award, which reflected lost wages, damages and legal fees. Greenhouse said the case made it "loud and clear that federal employees need better laws."