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The Elusiveness of Good Work in The Insider Essay

In “Good Work, Well Done,” Howard Gardner (1999) argues that “the goal of carrying out good work is harder to reach when conditions are unstable and market forces are allowed to run unchecked. ” This, according to him, was the dilemma “faced by workers in every domain” as existing authority systems in most working environments are designed to penalize whistle blowers rather than to correct unethical business practices. Gardner’s argument is exemplified in Michael Mann’s (1999) film, The Insider.

Based on the true story of tobacco industry whistle blower Jeffrey Wigand, Mann’s film is a brilliant movie depicting the intrinsic motivations, values, and expectations that oblige otherwise ambitious, loyal employees into sacrificing profitable careers, and even themselves, for the sake of the majority. The film owes majority of its success to Mann’s directorial genius, exemplary performances by Russell Crowe, Al Pacino, Christopher Plummer, and Dianne Venora; and in part to the compelling story of an altruistic employee who decides to give up his lucrative career for a nobler cause.

The Insider is interesting in its genuine depiction of many corporate workers’ experiences, the working environment, and the conflict that ensues due to incongruence between the individual’s personal values and company expectations for loyalty in its organization. By following the narrative of a tobacco company executive who exposes the unethical business practices of the corporation he works for, the film raises the issues of professional ethics as they relate and interact with business ethics in a corporate setting where the concerns of a healthy bottomline override other matters of concern (Gardner, 2002).

More importantly, the film captures the complex nature of whistle blowing as “an extreme that defies the reasonable expectation of the most prominent versions of ethics” (Grant, 2002, p. 396) and the impact of this action on the personal life of the whistle blower. Thus, the film’s title takes an ironic twist as whistle blowing demands that a worker, or an insider, subvert the norms and expectations of the culture he is in and in the process rendering him an outsider.

This aspect of whistle blowing is particularly depicted in the dilemma confronting the film’s main protagonist, Jeffrey Wigand (Russell Crowe), a scientist working as an executive in the research department of Brown and Williamson, one of the tobacco industry’s biggest companies. Wigand is terminated by the corporation because of his refusal to cooperate with the company’s questionable practice involving the use of nicotine to make cigarettes more addictive that in the scientist’s view was causing major damage to public health.

Clearly, Wigand’s case confirms Joseph McCafferty’s (2002) observation that “more often, those who try to bring to light unethical or illegal practices by their employers are criticized, treated like outcasts, fired, or worse. ” For instance, he experiences being harassed and receiving death threats shortly after being fired from the company, ostensibly made to ensure that he keeps his silence and honors his confidentiality agreement. It is not surprising that insiders like Wigand often experience extreme pressure and personal conflict even after they have severed ties with the company they work for.

Threats of retaliation through physical or financial harm and legal action often force employees who leave their jobs due to the mismatch between their ethical principles and work expectations vis-a-vis the priorities of the company they work for. The existence of legal and social mechanisms that punish the act of whistle-blowing, and the ineffectiveness of existing legal systems to support those who come forward to tell external stakeholders about illegal or unethical business practices contribute to the difficulties faced by whistle blowers. McCafferty, 2002) Ultimately, these impediments condition the majority of workers into a state of compliance despite their knowledge of wrongdoings in their workplace.

Accordingly, Grant (2002) argues that individuals like Wigand display a sense of ethics that surpass conventional ethical behavior and “exceed the minimal level that is required to sustain civil life. ” (p. 96) Given the lack of incentives and the threats posed by this action on their personal life and career opportunities, whistle blowers are clearly driven by a strong belief in moral and ethical ideals contrary to the conventional notion of whistle blowers as vindictive or errant employees. Wigand’s character affirms Grant’s (2002) contention; Instead of being deterred by the harassment and the gloomy prospects awaiting him in his career, he becomes more determined decision to spill Brown and Williamson’s dirty secret in a 60 minutes interview with CBS reporter Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino).

Wigand;s character therefore fits Grant’s description of whistle blowers as “saints in a secular culture. ” Throughout the film, Wigand’s sense of justice shines through despite his emotional battles and inner turmoils as he encounters numerous hardships such as being separated from his family and from company efforts to discredit his name. It is therefore only fitting that Wigand is vindicated when Bergman is able to counter the negative publicity and he finds a more fulfilling career that allows him to finally do “good work” by teaching.

Thus, The Insider is an illuminating look at how existing political and economic structures inhibit individuals from doing “good work” as defined by Gardner (2002). It is also an incisive commentary on how society, in general, conditions employees to normalize unfair business practices by valuing material incentives more than those based on social or moral ones. Consequently, whistle blowers, and others intent on doing “good work,” are often forced to carry their battles and ethical struggles alone, left vulnerable to the machinery of Big Business, and treated with contempt by their collegues and families.


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