Risks and Rewards of Blowing the Whistle

By Thompson, Kimberly | Phi Kappa Phi Forum, Fall 2012 | Go to article overview

Risks and Rewards of Blowing the Whistle


Thompson, Kimberly, Phi Kappa Phi Forum


What happens when employees discover wrongdoing in their organization? If the offense is serious--illegality, corruption, mismanagement, negligence, theft, cover-up, in-justice, danger--they might disclose the problem to the authorities or the public. And a positive, corrective outcome often occurs. But whistle-blowing can be a dicey proposition, for watchdogs are vulnerable to self-doubt and second-guessing, covert ostracism and outright retaliation.

In American jurisprudence, blowing the whistle because of some failure to make the grade dates at least to the False Claims Act of 1863, established to combat unscrupulous profiteers who mixed sawdust with gunpowder in ammunition sold to the Union Army. In a recent example, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit ordered in May that a whistle-blower lawsuit alleging fraudulent research by Harvard Medical School and associates should go to trial; Dr. Kenneth Jones, plaintiff and chief statistician for a multi-million-dollar grant awarded to the defendants by the National Institutes of Health to study Alzheimer's disease, was fired upon unearthing the apparent manipulation and insisting something be done about it.

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Political activist and consumer advocate Ralph Nader likely coined the term whistleblower in the early 1970s.

Laws also provide whistleblowers protection when exposing misconduct regarding occupational safety, environmental standards, national security, government malfeasance, and harmful products, for instance. The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission and Internal Revenue Service incorporate whistleblowers into their operations.

Whistleblowers embody strong morals and high ethics, personal responsibility and clean conscience, fair play and altruistic sacrifice. They come to the defense of those who cannot stand up for themselves for fear of losing their position, being denied promotion, or getting written up. Whistleblowers see the forest and the trees amid those who close their eyes to misdeeds because of a misguided notion that the status quo is best for everyone. For instance, in 1972, Peter Buxtun, an investigator at the U.S. Public Health Service, leaked its "Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male"--conducted for 40 years on hundreds of patients who, though agreeing to participate, had been misled about the intent of the project, were not given all the facts necessary to provide informed consent, did not receive adequate treatment, and were not offered the choice of quitting. And in 1988, after enduring sexual harassment at Eveleth (Minn.) Taconite Co. for nine years, and after querying some 50 lawyers, miner Lois Jenson, a single mother of two, along with 20 co-workers, filed the first class-action sexual harassment lawsuit in the U.S. The landmark case lasted 14 years and became the subject of the 2005 movie North Country.

Risks in blowing the whistle surpass aspects of livelihood such as termination, demotion, reassignment, and probation. A whistleblower might be labeled disloyal. Colleagues could distance themselves from the "snitch" even while conceding the "tattletale" had a point. (So productivity and morale suffer, as does the budget. …

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