Ethics of Whistleblowing in Business

Whistleblowing refers to the act of organization members, either former or current, disclosing information on illegal and unethical practices within the organization to parties internal or external to the organization, who can take action. It is becoming increasingly common as more and more employees speak out about their ethical concerns. It cannot be denied that whistleblowing is accompanied by a range of problems, for both the whistleblower and the organization. However, it can be argued that whistleblowing is an important and valid method of endeavoring to control possible unethical behavior by organizations, as well as helping to establish a level of social responsibility. For these reasons, it is important for society to maintain a level of support and encouragement towards whistleblowers, so that their often valuable contribution towards eliminating corporate wrongdoings can continue.

Ethics of Whistleblowing in Business

Employees who discover apparent wrongdoing within an organization are faced with several options, each of which comprises both negative and positive aspects. Generally, a whistleblower may hesitate to report wrongdoings either internally or externally due to a fear of losing their job or being transferred to an undesirable location, being subjected to harassment and victimization, having their lifestyle, competence, and mental health questioned, and becoming a focus of public attention, resulting in a loss of privacy. As well, they may struggle with a sense of disloyalty, where they inadvertently feel as if they are betraying their fellow colleagues or organization if they report what they know. A loyal employee will discern that any unethical behavior can never be in the best interests of an organization, and to ignore it with silence is in itself disloyal. Conversely, the final dilemma a whistleblower may face is one of personal loyalty, to their own ethical and moral values. Nevertheless, obligations of confidentiality and loyalty ideally should not take precedence over the fundamental duty to act in a manner that prevents unnecessary harm to others.

While these are all valid concerns, it is important for a whistleblower to concentrate on the positive aspects that reporting the wrongdoing can have. Over time, whistleblowing will increasingly be regarded as a normal workplace responsibility. When a whistleblower exposes the corrupt deeds of an organization, they are not only acting ethically and responsibly, but they are also serving to encourage those same qualities throughout the community. Other obvious benefits resulting from blowing the whistle include putting an end to the wrongdoing and those being disadvantaged by the wrongdoing, bringing to justice the individuals or organizations accountable for the wrongdoing, avoiding potential damage to the health and safety of the community, stopping potential damage to the environment, and creating an opportunity to implement improved internal practices in order to prevent wrongdoing in the future.

Any potential whistleblower must realize that a well-thought-out approach is both essential and practical. Firstly, be positive the situation is one that warrants whistle-blowing. Secondly, carefully examine the motives behind whistleblowing in order to ensure that they are genuine and can serve the public interest. Next, verify and document all information, as this will help to add further credence and strength to disclosures. Fourth, determine to whom the wrongdoing should be reported, and if the internal or external route is best. The allegations should then be stated in a clear, concise, and objective manner. Lastly, ensure that all appropriate guidelines have been followed in reporting the wrongdoing. Consulting a well-informed lawyer in order to help a whistleblower determine the best course of action to take, as well as what protection is available to the whistleblower. In order to sufficiently prepare themselves, potential whistleblowers need to understand that they may be unfairly vilified.

There are many occurrences where whistleblowing has deflected considerable harm toward society. One such example is that of Jerome J. LiCari, a former director of research and development for Beech-Nut Nutrition Corporation. Due to the low cost of the apple product used in most of the organization’s fruit foods, Mr. LiCari suspected the apple product to be a chemical substitute. His concern prompted him to tour the supplier’s facilities, where he found only a warehouse. Mr. LiCari reported his findings internally to the organization’s Purchasing Manager and Vice President of Operations, neither of whom took any action in the matter. However, Mr. LiCari would not be discouraged, and eventually determined that the apple product was indeed false, and took his findings to the CEO who assured Mr. LiCari that he would investigate. Again, Mr. LiCari saw no action being taken. It seemed Beech-Nut’s need to keep production costs down in the face of stiff competition outweighed the responsibility it owed to its consumers, and when no action had been taken after one year, Mr. LiCari left his job and reported what he knew to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), who promptly launched a full inquiry. Mr. LiCari’s actions were both responsible and justified, and he certainly explored all possible internal procedures. He was eventually forced by the refusal of his superiors to address a problem that was unethical, illegal, and harmful to consumers to make his complaint to an external party whom he knew would take action. This is just one example of how whistleblowing can benefit society, by exposing the kind of careless risk an unethical organization can place the public under, as well as helping to sustain or encourage an organization’s degree of social responsibility, through the threat of exposure.

Social responsibility is the concept that an organization is part of the larger society in which it exists and must therefore act in a way that not only advances the organization but also serves the society. Ethical principles and standards vary widely among individuals, organizations, and cultures. Business ethics are based on individual and collective moral decision-making at every level in the corporation. With whistleblowing continually on the rise, more than ever, organizations are being challenged to integrate social responsibility into their operations. That is, the threat of employees no longer keeping silent about unethical behavior within the workplace, coupled with higher protection from retaliation for whistleblowers, is a large deterrent to potential wrongdoers, as well as an ambassador for social responsibility. It is becoming increasingly apparent to business leaders that a commitment to corporate social responsibility can provide a distinct advantage in attracting and retaining employees, dealing with suppliers, strengthening customer relationships, and providing positive returns for stakeholders.

The protection of whistleblowers has become relevant enough that in July 1999, the U.K. launched the Public Interest Disclosure Act (PIDA), which grants an extremely high level of protection to whistleblowers in private, public, and nonprofit organizations, as well as encouraging and defending external whistleblowers with valid reasons. The U.S. introduced the ground-breaking Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002. Among the many new forms of protection available under this Act, corporate executives who retaliate against whistleblowers may be faced with up to 10 years in prison, and the U.S. Labor Department has the power to reinstate employees without a trial.

Undoubtedly, whistleblowing also generates both negative and positive effects on the organization. Once a whistleblower has disclosed to an external party, the public and media scrutiny and possible resulting charges may result in long-term harm to an organization’s reputation. As a consequence, an immense amount of time may be spent fighting whistleblower disclosures, resulting in a possible loss of morale among employees remaining within the organization, and the formation of any chaos and mutual suspicion among employees can affect the performance of the organization. There may also be issues of lost revenue and a decrease in the market performance of the organization. More often than not, managers have taken the stance that whistleblowers pose a risk to the organization’s unification, authority structure, and public image.

Employees that blow the whistle externally are often forced to do so because their concerns are not given fair hearings by their employers, which may result in damage to both the whistleblower and the organization. Yet if wrongdoing within an organization remains undetected, the result may create even greater damage to the workforce and the public at large. No organization is ever exempt from the general obligation it has to operate ethically, legally, and with a good level of social responsibility. It is the failure of any type of organization to fulfill these obligations that create the need for whistleblowing. If an organization conducts its business in an ethical and responsible manner, then it has nothing to fear from whistleblowers. Those that are willing to risk reporting illegal and unethical behavior should be supported and protected.

More importantly, the existence of whistleblowing has had the positive effect of resulting in a widely recommended and accepted introduction of a whistleblowing policy within many organizations. The whistleblower should only take their disclosures to an external party if and when all reasonable channels within the organization have been explored, yet the problem has still not been adequately resolved. This concept is widely agreed on by business professionals. However, there are circumstances where it is ineffectual for the employee to explore internal avenues, possibly due to a lack of faith in the system, time constraints, or the possible severity of the problem, and so the whistleblower may have to report externally. For this reason, organizations need to establish better internal procedures as an avenue for whistleblowers, in order to discourage any need they may feel to turn to external parties. This allows for the wrongdoings reported to be internally investigated, in a thorough manner, as a valuable alternative to external whistleblowing. A whistleblowing policy within an organization also serves to act as a double deterrent for unethical behavior, as the threat of being discovered increases.

Once the need for a whistleblowing policy within an organization has been recognized and implemented, it has the ability to improve continuing organizational effectiveness and benefit society in general. The many benefits listed as including the early ability to control and correcting wrongdoings before they reach the public or severely threaten the organization, avoid high losses in revenue and reputation, eliminate any health and safety risks caused by the wrongdoing, and establishing employee confidence that their opinions and issues are relevant, and serving to promote an environment of openness and trust. In this way, the organization is viewed by both employees and society as socially responsible and as a positive ethical influence.

By promoting a solid policy, an organization sends a clear message to its employees that ethics, morality, and social responsibility are crucial to the long-term success of the organization and that any unethical behavior is unacceptable. At the same time, it is essential for the organization to display a solid commitment to ethical behavior and follow the procedures stipulated in the policy. For an internal whistleblowing policy to successfully work, it is important that employees feel confident that by approaching someone within the organization, they are not risking their job, and that the problem will not be brushed aside. The advantages to those who have introduced whistleblowing procedures include the contribution to their image as an ethical and efficient organization.

For any organization, the existence of problems associated with whistleblowing and the implementation of a whistleblowing policy should not be viewed with apprehension or discouraged, but instead welcomed as a valuable opportunity to encourage employees to integrate themselves into the process of helping to improve the overall effectiveness and success of the organization. Through the creation of an atmosphere of openness and trust, good employers can ensure that their organization as a whole is interested in eliminating unethical, illegal, and harmful practices which previously may have been going on unnoticed, consequently serving to establish as well as further the organization’s social responsibility.

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