Advantages and disadvantages of whistle-blowing

Written by neil kokemuller Google
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Advantages and disadvantages of whistle-blowing
Statutes of limitations force whistle-blowers to act quickly to get federal whistle-blower protection. (Getty Thinkstock)

Whistle-blowing takes place when a government employee, company employee or independent contractor goes public with claims of illegal or unethical business practices or activities within his company. Many times, the whistle-blower has attempted to communicate the problem internally and has received no response from management. The dilemma of whether or not to report something and be the whistle-blower can be difficult; often the case is not a clean cut matter of ethics.

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Advantage 1: Public safety

One of the principle reasons to blow the whistle on illegal or unethical activities is to protect the public, colleagues or others from risk. The more immediate and the more significant the risk, the more important to take action efficiently. When companies engage in activities that could cause physical or mental harm to people, or environmental damage, many believe it is your duty to make those activities known.

Advantage 2: Moral responsibility

Blowing the whistle out of a sense of moral obligation is generally regarded as the best reason to do so. In his Denver Business Journal article "`Blowing the Whistle' Requires Courage," Marshall Colt explains that "What motivates you?" is a key question you should ask before whistle-blowing. If you are attempting to protect the public or fulfil a sense of moral duty, you are likely justified. If revenge against your organisation is the motive, you may not have a good motivation for action.

Disadvantage 1: Retaliation

One of the primary disadvantages of blowing the whistle is the potential retaliation you face from management and colleagues. Some protections are in place to encourage whistle-blowing, but those offer little support when you show up at the office each day to a sense of resentment and hate from your co-workers. Colt encourages whistle-blowers to have a physical and mental escape plan should things turn ugly at the office. Perhaps the most startling example of this in recent times is US whistle-blower, Edward Snowden, who leaked details of several top-secret United States and British government mass surveillance programs to the press and was forced to flee the country to escape prosecution from the US government.

Disadvantage 2: Conflicts of interest

For many potential whistle-blowers, the conflict of interest between serving one's company, co-workers and friends and protecting the public is very real and challenging. You must weigh the possible damage to your working relationships and your career against the merits of blowing the whistle in a given situation. Many people feel a sense of loyalty to their company that prohibits whistle-blowing. Others simply are too burdened by the thought of making bold accusations against an employer. In some cases an outsider will discover highly questionable and unethical practices within a company. In these cases the ultimate result will be beneficial though it still may end up hurting individuals. Two major examples are WorldCom and Enron; in each case someone noticed unethical practices and spoke out. While the investors at the time lost large sums of money, future investors were protected, current investors were saved from further loss, and the transgressors were prosecuted and punished.

The decision to report malpractice or unethical procedures is seldom easy. In the end it comes down to whether or not individuals are suffering damages, could suffer damages in the future, or whether harm may come to any stakeholders of the corporation. If the answer is yes, though it may adversely affect the whistle-blower themselves, the general benefits far surpass the negatives. In cases such as this, with a solid ethical and moral foundation, whistleblowing is an acceptable decision.

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