Magazine article Skeptic (Altadena, CA)

Why Whistleblowing Doesn't Work: Loyalty Is a Whole Lot Easier to Enforce Than Honesty

Magazine article Skeptic (Altadena, CA)

Why Whistleblowing Doesn't Work: Loyalty Is a Whole Lot Easier to Enforce Than Honesty

Article excerpt

WHISTLEBLOWING IS A DANGEROUS GAME. MOST often, whistleblowers' allegations are ignored or their motives are suspected, while whistleblowers themselves are attacked, ostracized, threatened, and even fired. The primary reason for whistleblowers failing to report dishonesty is fear of retribution, while conscience and duty are discounted. Would-be whistleblowers often rationalize their failure to blow the whistle because they fear they will be seen as disloyal. The dilemma between honesty and loyalty is presented as an instance of a Nash Equilibrium economic model. Toleration of dishonesty by others is the major contributing factor to both individual and organizational dishonesty, as clearly shown by past major scandals such as those uncovered in the New York City Police Department, Enron, the Tour de France, and the school systems of Atlanta, New Orleans, and the District of Columbia. More significantly, our research shows a steady rise in toleration of dishonesty at the three major U.S. service academies over the past half-century.

Whistleblowers as Heroes

On December 30th, 2002, Time magazine proudly introduced the world to its annum recognition, "Persons of the Year. The Whistleblowers." The magazine cover displayed three determined-looking women, Cynthia Cooper of World-Com, Coleen Rowley of the FBI, and Sherron Watkins of Enron. These women were prominently identified and displayed as whistleblowers on organizational corruption. Initially, each of these women had informed their organization's executives about the organization's suspect practices. And in each case their warnings were ignored or stonewalled, either intentionally or otherwise. Cooper, Rowley, and Watkins had become unintentional whistleblowers only after their repeated warnings had been leaked to outside authorities and the press. (1)

Time enthusiastically praised Cooper, Rowley, and Watkins as highly moral heroes and pathfinders who might someday lead a revolution in organizational ethics. But, alas, the revolution never happened. Worse, neither Watkins nor Cooper were ever hired again, and Rowley was never promoted. Watkins and Cooper did later manage to start their own small private consulting firms, but the FBI silently retired Rowley. From time to time, all three of these whistleblowers are requested to speak to groups, but that's about as far as the revolution has ever moved.

A Most Dangerous Game

Whistleblowing historically has been a dangerous and unequal contest, matching the individual against his or her own organization. Very few whistleblowers emerge from this contest without severe wounds, while the organization most often stands supreme. There have been few controlled or field studies on whistleblowing, and most published literature on this topic has been in the form of case studies, which have concluded that more often than not the whistleblower is counterattacked and often fired. (2) Whistleblowing cases have been known to drag on for over 20 years, leaving the whistleblower with nothing to show but debts, and often unemployment. The majority of whistleblowers interviewed admitted they were initially naive and had learned a painful lesson--never do it again. (3)

Contrary to popular fiction, whistleblowers are not held in high regard. "Whistleblower" is a word invented in the late 20th century and it's often associated with unflattering pejoratives such as: Tattletale, Ratfink, Stool Pigeon, Snitch, Informer, Canary, Turncoat, Bigmouth, Busybody, Fat Mouth, Weasel, Informer, Squealer, Backstabber, Double-Crosser, Agent-Provocateur, Shill, Judas, Quisling, Treasonist, and so forth. There are at least as many synonyms for "whistle-blower" as Mark Twain identified for "intoxicated."

The Tragic Hero: Breaking the NYPD's Blue Code of Silence

One generalization from our research is that the closer knit the group, the greater the retribution on whistleblowers. Accordingly, few persons are as disliked by cops as a cop who becomes an internal rat. …

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