When is Whistle-Blowing Morally Justified?

by Josephson Institute on March 22, 2011

By Richard Wheeler (Zephyris) 2007.

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Employees who blow the whistle on their company for perceived wrongdoing face risks that range from termination to less desirable assignments or exclusion from social invitations.  Despite these possible risks, employees may be morally justified to blow the whistle under the following conditions identified by Richard DeGeorge in the book Business Ethics.

  1. When the firm through a policy or product will commit serious and substantial harm to the public (as consumers or bystanders), the employee should report the firm.
  2. When the employee identifies a serious threat to those who may be harmed, he or she should report it and state his or her moral concern.
  3. When the employee’s direct supervisor does not act, the employee should use the internal procedures and chain of command up to the board of directors.
  4. The employee must have documented evidence that is convincing to a reasonable, impartial observer that his or her view of the situation is accurate and that the firms’ practice, product, or policy seriously threatens and puts in danger the public and/or product user.
  5. The employee must have valid reasons to believe that revealing the wrongdoing to the public will result in the necessary changes to remedy the situation. The chance of succeeding must be equal to the risk and danger the employee takes to blow the whistle.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

fillemon August 31, 2013 at 7:04 am

can you please tell me when external whistle blowing is morally jusfiable

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Michael Josephson August 31, 2013 at 12:51 pm

When it is necessary to right a serious wrong, especially with ongoing harmful impact, to uphold the companies values and to be sure that employees who are undermining the integrity of the organization are held accountable. It is preferable to try to achieve these goals with honest internal discussions but that is often not feasible,

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Mr Morris February 5, 2014 at 4:28 pm

4. Dear Michael Josephson,
As part of a Business Ethics course assignment I am required to find a web article/blog and provide a comment to the contents. I can see it gives a very concise answer to “When is whistle-blowing justified?” with a couple of questions put forward by members of the public. While I completely agree with the content, I chose to comment on this as I might be able to elaborate, and in the process provide an answer to these questions put forward.
To understand the question above I believe it is important to have an understanding on the topic; not only when it is acceptable to blow the whistle but why as well.
Whistleblowing is defined as “the act by an employee of informing the public on the immoral or illegal behaviour of an employer or supervisor” (Duska 1990). There are two forms; Internal relates to a person reporting issues/wrongdoings within an organisation which is generally good for the organisation as it highlights issues before they are exposed to the external environment. External relates to the release of company issues/wrongdoings to the general public from a person with internal knowledge that would not have otherwise been leaked.
There are those for and against whistleblowing. Some believe that it is a courageous act that should be carried out for the greater good while others believe it is being disloyal to your organisation.
Naturally if carrying out a disloyal act then surely whistleblowing would be unethical and therefore should not be carried out? You may find yourself in one of the two situations below; having a sense of loyalty towards an organisation or not (1 per paragraph) which explains that whistleblowing is not unethical.
Duska (1990) argues that “one does not have an obligation of loyalty to a company because companies are not the kind of things which are proper objects of loyalty.” It is built on the mutual/two way relationship such as husband and wife/ father and child, where a profit organisation is an instrument to make money, using its staff as a means to an end. Organisations create a team environment which creates a sense of loyalty to the team which prevents staff from wanting to let the team down but as a company there is no loyalty towards them. Therefore there is no loyalty owed and that the act of whistleblowing is not an act of disloyalty.
In some cases or organisations I agree with Duska, however, I do believe that some organisations/staff create genuine relationships to drive the business forward – creating a healthy working environment where both parties are of benefit. It is in these organisations, which genuinely take care of their staff and invest in them; it is where relationships and loyalties are formed. So in this case carrying out the act of whistleblowing would be disloyal and unethical as you are negatively affecting your own team or “letting them down”. However, it is recognized that this is a prima facie duty; “one that can be over-ridden by a higher duty to the public good.” (Duska 1990). In other words the loyal employee has a duty towards the general public if they are at harm which overrides his loyalty towards the company.
Now that we have determined that whistleblowing is ethical, as discussed from two different viewpoints above, when is the act justified?
As stated above and following standard theory (Davis 1996) once the following conditions have been met then you would be OK to blow the whistle:
6. The organisation the whistleblower belongs to, through its product or policy, does serious hard to the public (including consumers, innocent bystanders or the general public at large).
7. The whistleblower has identified the threat of harm, reported it to their immediate supervisor, making clear both the threat itself and the objection to do it, and concluded that the superior will do nothing effective.
8. The whistleblower has exhausted other internal procedures within the organisation – or at least made use of many internal procedures as the danger to others and her own safety make reasonable.
9. The whistleblower has/or has accessible evidence that would convince a reasonable, impartial observer that her view of the threat is correct.
10. The whistleblower has good reason to believe that revealing the threat will (probably) prevent the harm at reasonable cost.

In real situations it can seem more complicated than this and there are options available to you such as staying silent, reporting the issue internally or blow the whistle externally.
As a guide there are three theories to assist with your decision as to which action to take; utilitarianism, Kantian model and virtue ethics theory. For the purpose of this blog we’ll look at Utilitarianism which considers which option will result in the greatest amount of happiness and the least amount of harm. As an example, if you found out your manager was knowingly sourcing caged battery eggs and selling them as free range should you:
D) Stay silent – company is happy but New Zealand consumers are being misled.
E) Blow the whistle internally (senior management) – your manager is angry, company is happy to resolve the issue, NZ consumers are not being misled.
F) Blow the whistle externally – company unhappy and NZ market unhappy.
We can see that option B results in the most happiness and least amount of harm so you would blow the whistle internally. If addressing the issues internally, going through the chain of command, has not produced the results then you may have no other choice than to blow the whistle externally.
To conclude, whether you have a sense of loyalty or not towards an organisation, whistleblowing is considered an ethical act as without a sense of loyalty it is therefore not unethical to be disloyal and in the cases you do feel a sense of loyalty there is the prima facie rule that applies that states you have a greater duty towards the general public.

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Shaun Bob January 27, 2015 at 2:37 am

Dear Michael,

Do you think it is important to distinguish the argument in terms of internal and external whistle blowing? Particularly given that these two types of whistle blowing could be perceived to have different threshold conditions for being morally justifiable. For the avoidance of doubt:

Internal Whistle blowing is where an organisations personnel (“employees”) report misconduct or potential harm concerns internally to managerial personnel.

External whistle blowing is where employees report misconduct or potential harm concerns externally to media sources (Houston, 2014).

Both imply disclosure of confidential information (i.e. not in the public organisation) that has been obtained through the personnel’s role within that organisation. That information would either be obtained by virtue of their involvement with the organisations activities, policies or practices or/and through involvement with other organisational personnel who may or may not be carrying out activities sanctioned by the organisation.

That there is a threshold for morally justifiable disclosure at all assumes agreement that employees are in a special relationship with the organisation and that they owe a duty of care both to the organisation and their colleagues. Questions regarding potential conflicts of interest in regards to loyalty are the most common raised by a would be whistle blower.

In the case of internal whistle blowing the threshold sets a standard for the point at which reporting fellow colleagues to an internal authority in regards to potential harm or misconduct events is morally justifiable. However, given that the employee is in a special relationship (either contractual or because a duty of care is owed) as an agent of the organisation and interactions with colleagues is also in their role as agents – it is not clear that any duty of care is owed to the other colleague agent other than in serving the best interests of the organisation. Any conflicting issues of workplace friendship or potential loyalty between colleagues should take a back seat given that both agents derive benefits from the organisation as a result of their special relationship as agents acting in the interests of the organisation. It is for this reason that internal whistle blowing is widely encouraged by most organisations given that it gives them, at the very least, the opportunity to investigate, mitigate or avoid issues internally prior to public disclosure (if necessary).

For these reasons I would argue that the moral threshold for internal whistle blowing is very low. Particularly in regards to DeGeorge’s requirement for documented near empirical evidence being too high. The primary purpose of internal whistle blowing is to initiate an internal investigation or creation of a policy to reduce the potential for future harm events either within or by the organisation. Given that the overriding duty of care is to the organisation rather than to the colleague it seems that the issue is comparable to the difference between perceived and actual conflicts of interest – in the case of internal whistle blowing employees should disclose relevant situations to an internal authority where those concerns are both perceived (potentially true) and actual (empirically provable) given that no external harm is likely to come to the organisation to whom the duty of care is owed. This does raise two further questions for consideration but not for discussion here:

(i) Whether organisations should facilitate processes that allow internal whistle blowers anonymity given the potential for abuse by disgruntled or vexatious complainants; and

(ii) At what point those persons publicly responsible for the organisation have a duty to disclose information to the public and whether an internal whistle blower is justified in not taking an internal complaint public where this point is breached given that this responsibility could be perceived as being passed on.

In regards to employee external whistle blowing, if it can be accepted that the employee has duties to both the organisation and society as a whole, which of these duties take precedence? We should apply a parallel argument to that used above in examination of internal whistle blowing. Given that both the employee and colleague owe a duty to the organisation as both exist in a special relationship with the organisation so to do the employee and the organisation owe a duty to society given that both the employee and the organisation exist in a special relationship with society. This relationship is established under law and also in principles of social corporate responsibility and social contract. Under these circumstances the same conclusion should be drawn in that the greatest duty of care for the employee and the organisation is owed to society.

Ronald Duska has argued that loyalty or a duty of care, beyond that formed in contract is not possible between individuals and organisations because it is emotionally based and a company is not able to reciprocate emotion (Duska, 2000). However, given that society can be adequately seen as a construction of members capable of reciprocity it is not clear why organisations or companies as social constructions of their members and stakeholders cannot be seen as capable of reciprocity.

The question for the potential external whistle-blower then is whether they are obligated to follow an internal procedure prior to public disclosure. DeGeorge’s points cover this well – particularly points 4 and 5. In most circumstances the employee, as an agent of the organisation, should refer to that organisations internal disclosure procedure and allow the organisation the opportunity to make corrective steps and appropriate personnel to make public comment. However, where a delay in internal procedures or immediate need required public disclosure to prevent serious harm it would seem that public disclosure by an employee would be morally justified.

From a theoretical perspective, both utilitarian and virtue schools, would agree either that in the event that an action is taken it must be the right action or achieve the least harm. Which, for the sake of simplicity translates that for any kind of whistle blowing to be morally justifiable it must either be a virtuous act or that which achieves the most utility – a statement that leaves more questions than answers.

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