The Ethics of Whistleblowing

The topic of whistleblowing has been long debated within the business realm. The ethics of such an act must be examined because so many people have a stake in the consequence of the act itself. The person blowing the whistle, the corporation/company, other employees, and consumers of the product being produced by the corporation all have a large stake in those consequences. Whether employees have an overriding commitment (referred to from here on out as "loyalty") is a key point of contention. Does an employee simply work for a company and have an obligation to be loyal to that company and therefore that is their main focus? Or do they have an obligation to serve the greater good of the overall public that would cause them in some cases not be loyal to their companies? The topic of loyalty comes up almost immediately when discussing the whistleblowing. Some ethicists contend that loyalty to the company comes before all else because that is who you owe the most to. Other ethicists contend that loyalty to the overall good of the public overrides any loyalty that is owed to the company when the good of that public is in danger.

Many different points arise over this topic, but to first understand the debate it is necessary to first understand what whistleblowing means in its broadest sense since it is difficult to narrow down a specific definition. From there, the topic can be more readily and easily debated according to its many aspects. Among the different aspects that govern the debate of whistleblowing is the question of loyalty.

According to Sissela Bok, whistleblowing occurs when "whistleblowers sound an alarm from within an organization in which they work, aiming to spotlight neglect or abuses that threaten the public interest" (Bok, 1980).

The term "whistleblowing" itself carries a very negative connotation. Instead of being praised as simply doing the right thing, often times what ends up happening is a total ostracization from the professional world for the whistleblower. Whistleblowing can occur externally or internally within a company. Since we are dealing with the subject of loyalty, the external whistleblowing debate will not be covered as much as the one involving internal whistleblowing. In these cases, the act is occurring from someone within the company that still works at the place in question.

Loyalty, too, is hard to define. Further on, ethicists will offer their definitions for what loyalty means to them. The American Heritage Dictionary defines loyalty as, "A feeling or attitude of devoted attachment and affection." This makes the discussion a bit more interesting because according to that definition it would seem that you could only really be loyal to a person. Still, when speaking about loyalty and whether an employee owes it to their employer not to blow the whistle even if something wrong is occurring is very confusing. When we begin to discuss this issue of loyalty we enter into a very gray and murky area. First off, many different questions arise. Questions such as, to whom is the loyalty owed?

Is it to the managers of the corporations, the stockholders, or to other employees? Surely all of these people are encompassed when speaking about the company as a whole. And the argument always arises as to whether loyalty is owed at all to a company. Even if one believes that loyalty is owed to a company, the next question arises asking if that loyalty supersedes the loyalty owed to the general public to do good.

When many think of the word whistleblowing, different images come to mind. The most common is the image of a rat. As Michael Martin explains, the first instinct is to "condemn whistleblowers as disloyal troublemakers who "rat" on their companies and undermine teamwork...within the corporation" (Martin, 1983). That image of the rat already paints those who practice whistleblowing as people that are doing something wrong. They are perceived as messing up the teamwork and cohesive dynamic that is necessary for a productive and profitable workplace environment. That said, therefore, many are discouraged from pointing out what they believe to be wrongdoings in the workplace because they might be looked upon as being "disloyal troublemakers" as Martin puts it. And this seems to be the prevailing consensus in the business world. Many believe that an employee owes his/her livelihood to the company and must therefore, if anything, remain loyal to the company. This would mean turning the other way when wrongdoings are happening.

One must keep the perceptions of whistleblowers and the definition of what exactly whistleblowing is in mind when deciding whether there is an obligation, to the company or corporation that employs an individual, to remain loyal and not blow the whistle. Sissela Bok points to the very fact that an employee signed up to do more than just show up to his job everyday when they took that particular job. Therefore, she states that "a would-be whistleblower must weight his responsibility to serve the public interest against the responsibility he owes to his colleagues and the institution in which he works" (Bok, 1980). In this statement Bok makes two very important assertions. One, she makes the assertion that an employee has a responsibility to serve the public interest. And two, she makes the assertion that an employee owes something to this colleagues and the institution where they work. That thing that an employee would owe to an institution and his coworkers is presumably loyalty. Therefore, that is why, among other reasons, whistleblowing becomes very difficult.

Still, Bok does not necessarily state whether she believes whistleblowing is permissible or not. She merely states that there is a conflict that occurs when deciding on whether to blow the whistle or not. She does however, make it clear that she believes that the employee has an obligation of loyalty not only to the corporation where they work, but also an obligation to the public and to serve their overall interests. She does, not explicitly, but does say that whistleblowing would be a breaking that loyalty that an employer and employee have to one another. She calls it "dissent, and breach of loyalty," so it can be said that she does believe that there is an obligation of loyalty to the corporation. She does not, at this point, make a decision as to whether she believes it is permissible, or even an admirable act. It does seem that she believes it to be somewhat negative, if even only for the wrath that a whistleblower incurs afterward.

Ronald Duska offers another view on the topic of loyalty and whistleblowing. He finds it necessary to first fully define what loyalty means to him. He makes an important distinction that Bok does not. He believes that there is only one true form of loyalty and no varying degrees of loyalty. For him, "loyalty depends on ties that demand self-sacrifice with no expectation of reward" (Duska, 1983). According that definition, as he later explains, he says that therefore loyalty can only be applied toward families and close friends. Those ties he says, holds a family together because they require self-sacrifice and no expectation of reward. In this way then, it is not possible for a company to require (or expect) loyalty for its employees. First off, there is definitely an expectation of a reward, in the form of pay. It is doubtful that an employee would accept a job without there being pay. And secondly, the company could not offer self- sacrifice to the employee at any point. Also, he claims that "in any relationship which demands loyalty the relationship works both ways and involves mutual enrichment" (Duska, 1983). This is why it would be impossible for an employee to owe any sort of loyalty to the company in which he/she works. The employee can put out their end and enrich the company, but it is unlikely that the company will be able to reciprocate that same level of enrichment. That is Duska's main argument when stating that an employee does not owe loyalty and must not whistleblow: "It is because of this reciprocal requirement which demands surrendering self-interest that a corporation is not a proper object of loyalty" (Duska, 1983).

Duska makes a good point as to why loyalty to a corporation cannot really be owed. First of all, the reciprocal nature that loyalty entails cannot exist with a corporation if we follow his definition. Furthermore, he makes a very important point about those that do argue that loyalty is owed to a corporation. It would require "us to think of that company as a person or as a group with a goal of human enrichment" (Duska, 1983). If we harken back to the dictionary's definition of what loyalty means, then Duska's argument here can be clearly connected. The dictionary definition made it seem as if only a person could really be loyal to another person, and certainly not to a corporation. Furthermore, the main goal of the company would have to be to enrich its employees in that reciprocal relationship that was previously discussed. As we know however, the main goal of any corporation is to make a profit. The profit, which is what any corporation strives for, is often times obtained at the expense of many of the employees' own interests. Not only does a corporation not make the employees' interests their goal, they make those interests very secondary to anything else. Still, Duska does believe that whistleblowing, while not to be done out of loyalty to a corporation, does require some further thought. Just because no loyalty is owed to the employer does not mean that employees should be blowing the whistle left and right on meaningless things. "We don't blow the whistle over everything," Duska outlines in his argument (Duska, 1983).

Duska has already made a case for why he believes that whistleblowing is permissible simply for the fact that the employee does not owe the corporation for whom they work, any loyalty. There are still other aspects of the argument that need to be examined to fully understand the whole discussion over whistleblowing.

An interesting development into the discussion as to whether whistleblowing is a loyal act seems to involve the type of wrongdoing that is occurring. Bok does not specify or distinguish between offenses that involve higher stakes versus those that do not. She also does not indicate whether the wrongdoing is affecting just those within the company or might also affect those that do not work within the company, such as the general public (ie: consumers). A study conducted by Near, Rehg, Van Scotter, and Micelli suggests that the type of wrongdoing that is occurring is very relevant when talking about whistleblowing. The study conducted was a large survey of individuals that were employees at a large military base. The survey found that the individual cases mattered when an employee was determining whether or not to report the wrongdoings. Therefore, employees "who observed perceived wrongdoing involving management, sexual harassment, or unspecified legal violations were significantly more likely to report it" (Near, J., Rehg, M., Van Scotter, J., Miceli, M., 2004). On the other hand, the same study found that when the wrongdoing was considered to be something not too important, things like "stealing, waste, safety problems, and discrimination," they were not as highly reported as the others, although the employees did take note that these wrongdoings were occurring. As to why the employees did not blow the whistle is a matter of the employees' own perception of what is worse. Surely if they employees had no loyalty to the company they would report every bit of wrongdoings that they came across. However, it is possible to conclude that only when the wrongdoing was too much to overlook did the employees break the loyalty to the company. Furthermore, the employees that were surveyed all worked at a large military base. It is a safe assumption that military employees are some of, if not, the most loyal individuals when it comes to their workplace. The study states that "two-thirds are civilians employees, and one-third active duty military members" (Near, J., et al. 2004).

The type of wrongdoing is a clear predicator as to whether whistleblowing might occur. Loyalty played a role in the decisions the people in the study made, but it was not an overriding factor. Loyalty did play a role as some said that they did not want to get their supervisors in trouble, but still for the most part the type of wrongdoing was the overriding factor in determining whether or not to blow the whistle. Still, the people were less likely to report the wrongdoing if they felt that they would directly get their supervisor or coworker in trouble. This isn't explicitly done out of loyalty. There might be cases where the person did not want to incur the consequences of whistleblowing. They might have been seen by their fellow employees as being bad employees. The study provides insight into the reasons behind why someone might or might not blow the whistle on wrongdoings. All of these must be taken into careful consideration when entering the discussion of loyalty and whistleblowing in business.

Whistleblowing in the business world is very problematic for many reasons. Many different sides to the story always exist and it is no different with whistleblowing. There are those that claim that it is a permissible act. Some claim that it is only permissible under certain circumstances. And then some claim that it is not a permissible act because of the loyalty that is owed to a company, business, or corporation. With all that, there are others that argue that no loyalty is owed to a company at all. Maybe this is why Time magazine selected three proven and admitted whistleblowers as their "people of the year" for 2002 (Near, J., et al. 2004). The real loyalty is owed to the public and not to individual companies.

The subject of ethics is a very interesting one because there are many subdivisions within the discipline. Still, it is clear that most important of all would have to be the overall ethics of any situation. If one action hurts, in this case, a corporation, but does an overwhelming amount of good for people as a whole then it might just be the right thing to do. The subject will be debated, as there is no clear right or wrong answer, just opinions of thoughtful people engaging in dialogue.




Duska, Ronald. "Whistleblowing and Employee Loyalty," (1983).

Martin, Mike W., "Whistleblowing: professionalism, personal life, and shared responsibility for safety in engineering" Business and Professional Ethics Journal, 11, 1992; 21-40

Near, J., Rehg, M., Van Scotter, J., Miceli, M. Business Ethics Quarterly; Apr2004, Vol. 14 Issue 2, p219-242, 24pA

Sissela, Bok. "Whistleblowing and Professional Responsibilities," New York University Education Quarterly 11, (Summer 1980): 2-7

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