Whistle blowing is informing on illegal and unethical practices in the workplace. It is becoming increasingly common as employees speak out about their ethical concerns at work. It can have disastrous consequences for the individual, as well as threatening the survival of the organization that is being complained about. In this issue, philosopher Sissela Bok asserts that although blowing the whistle is often justified, it does involve dissent, accusations, and a breach of loyalty to the employer. But on the other hand, Robert A. Larmer, an associate professor of philosophy, argues that attempting to stop illegal or unethical company activities may be the highest type of company loyalty an employee can display.
Under what circumstances, if any, is whistle blowing morally justified? Some people have argued that whistle blowing is never justified because employees have absolute obligations of confidentiality and loyalty to the organization for which they work. People who argue this way see no difference between employees who reveal trade secrets by selling information to competitors, and whistle blowers who disclose activities harmful to others. This position is similar to another held by some business people that the sole obligation of corporate executives is to make a profit for the stockholders. If this were true, corporate executives would have no obligations to the public.
However, no matter what one’s special obligation, one is never exempt from the general obligations we have to our fellow human beings. One of the most fundamental of these obligations is not to cause harm to others. Corporate executives are no more exempt from this obligation than other people. Corporations in democratic societies are run with the expectations that they will function in ways that are compatible with the public interest. Corporations in democratic societies also run with the expectations that they will not only obey the law governing their activities, but will not do anything that undermines basic democratic processes, such as bribing public officials.
In addition to having the obligation to make money for stockholders, corporate executives have the obligation to see that these obligations are complied within an organization. They also have obligations to the company’s employees, for example to maintain a safe working place. If corporate executives fail to fulfill obligations of the types mentioned, then that creates the need for whistle blowing.
Just as the special obligations of corporate executives to stockholders cannot override their more fundamental obligations to others, the special obligations of employees to employer cannot override their more fundamental obligations. Such as obligations of confidentiality and loyalty cannot take precedence over the fundamental duty to act in ways that prevent unnecessary harm to others. Agreements to keep something secret have no moral standing unless the secret is itself morally justifiable. For example no person can have an obligation to keep a secret of a plot to murder someone, because murder is an immoral act. It is for this reason also that employees
have a legal obligation to report an employer who has committed or is about to commit a felony. Although there are obvious differences between the situation of employees who work for government agencies and those who work for private firms, if we leave apart the special case in which national security was involved, then the same principles apply to both. The Codes of Ethics of Government Service to which all government employees are expected to conform requires that employees put loyalty to moral principles and the national interest above loyalty to the public parties or the agency for which they work. Neither can one justify participation in an illegal or immoral activity by arguing that one was merely following orders.
It has also been argued that whistle blowing is always justified because it is an exercise of the right to free speech. But, the right to free speech is not perfect. An example: to shout “Fire” in a crowded theater because that is likely to cause a panic in which people may be injured. Similarly, one may have a right to speak out on a particular subject, in the sense that there are no contractual agreements which prohibit him/her from doing so, but it may be the case that it would be morally wrong for one to do so because it would harm innocent people, such as one’s fellow workers and stockholders who are not responsible for the wrongdoing being disclosed.
The fact that one has the right to speak out does not mean that one should do so in every case. But this kind of consideration cannot create an complete prohibition against whistle blowing because one must weigh the harm to fellow workers and stockholders caused by disclosure against the harm to others caused by allowing the organizational wrong to continue. Further more, the moral principles that you must consider all people’s interests
equally prohibits giving preference to one’s own group. So there must be considered justification for not giving as much weight to the interest of the stockholders investing in corporate firms because they do so with the knowledge that they take on financial risk if management acts illegally or immorally. Same as if the employees of a company know that it is engaged in illegal or immoral activities and do not take action, including whistle blowing, to end the activities, then they must bear some of the guilt for the actions.
These in turn cancel the principles that one should refrain from blowing the whistle because speaking out would cause harm to the organization. Unless it can be shown that the harm to the employees and stockholders would be significantly greater than the harm caused by the organizational wrong doing, the obligation to avoid unnecessary harm to the public must come first. This must be true even when there are specific agreements not to speak out. Because ones obligation to the public overrides one’s obligation to maintain secrecy.
If the arguments which I have just made are valid then the position of whistle blowing is never justified because it involves a violation of loyalty and confidentiality, or that whistle blowing is always right because it is an exercise of the right to free speech and is morally justified. Then the obligation a person has to prevent avoidable harm to others overrides any obligations of confidentiality and loyalty, making it an obligation to blow the whistle on illegal or unethical acts.
Now that I have set down the some moral ground rules that help determine if one is justified in blowing the whistle on business, I would like to share five early whistle blowers, some of which became famous as case studies in business schools across our nation.
Charles Atchinson blew the whistle on an unsafe nuclear plant in Glen Rose, Texas. The result cost him his job, plunged him into debt, and left emotional scars on his family. Kermit Vandivier lost his job after he blew the whistle on B. F. Goodrich Aircraft Brakes scandal. Since then, he began a new career as a journalist. James Pope claimed that the Federal Aviation Agency (FAA) found in 1975 an effective device known as the airborne collision avoidance system that would prevent mid-air collisions; but the FAA chose instead to pursue an inferior device it had had in hand in developing. U.S. cost analyst Ernest Fitzgerald was discharged from the Airforce after finding huge cost overruns on Lockheed cargo planes that were being developed for the Airforce.
I believe what has happened in all five of these incidents is that which is common among whistle blowers. Employees that decide to blow the whistle on business for the greater good of the people are often subject to countless acts of discrimination. Employees are often demoted, pushed aside, put down, alienated from the industry, and made their lives extremely uncomfortable for the mere fact that they tried to do the right thing. If anything, all these whistle blowers should have been rewarded for trying to prevent a disaster, but instead punished.
Employees that are forced to blow the whistle are often forced to do so because their concerns are not given fair hearings by their employer or company. This results in damage to both the whistleblower and the organization. Yet if wrong doing within an organization go undetected, they can result in even in greater damage to the workforce, and the public at large. Whistle blowing is an effective way to regulate business internally and should not be discriminated against.
It has come to my attention that whistle blowers may never have it easy. The possibility of causing career suicide should be maintained at the lowest level possible. A good indication of the how genuinely ethical our society is how organizations treats its whistle blowers. I can only hope that we will improve in the next coming century than continue on the course we have set for ourselves in the past. I strongly believe that society owes an immense gratitude to its whistle blowers and that they will soon be praised for coming forward instead of punished.