Is Whistle-Blowing Good for an Organization or Not?

“The term whistleblower derives from the practice of English Bobbies (police officers) who would blow their whistle when they noticed the commission of a crime. The blowing of the whistle would alert both law enforcement officers and the general public of danger”. (wikipedia) In more modern terms related to the business world, a whistleblower is an employee, former employee, of a business or government agency, who reports misconduct to people or entities that have the power and presumed willingness to take corrective action.

(wikipedia) Generally, the wrongdoing is a violation of a law, a rule, a regulation, and/or a direct threat to public or shareholders. The whistle-blowing report may include; fraud, health or safety violations, corruption, or lack of concern for the law. Brief History Attitudes toward whistle-blowing have evolved considerably during the past 50 years in corporate America, from the early days of the “company man”, where loyalty to the company was the norm, to the present time when public outrage about corporate misconduct has created a more positive climate for whistle-blowing.

Persons who blow the whistle generally do so out of a sense of public duty arising from high personal moral standard and the need to maintain professional integrity and standards. Because of the high personal risk attached to whistle-blowing, reporting is not taken lightly as whistle-blowers become vulnerable to unfavorable actions being taken against them by way of retaliation. Prior to the 1960s, corporations had broad employee policies and could fire an employee at will. Employees were expected to be loyal to their organizations at all costs.

Among the few exceptions to this rule were unionized employees, who could only be fired for “just cause,” and government employees because the courts upheld their constitutional right to criticize agency policies. In part because of this lack of protection for whistleblowers, problems were often concealed rather than solved. Probably the most well known example was in asbestos manufacturing, where the link to lung disease was clearly established as early as 1940, but actively suppressed by company officials. The first product liability lawsuit against an asbestos manufacturer was not successfully publicized until 1971.

(Asbestos, History of) This case set precedence in the history of whistle-blowing, proving that though the battle was difficult, good could come out of “tattling” on big business. “Even in cases where whistle-blowing occurred, it was not always heeded. In 1972, Firestone Tire Director of Development Thomas A. Robertson sent top management a memo warning that the 500 tire was inferior and subject to belt-edge separation at high speeds. His warning was ignored despite reports about poor performance from major customers such as General Motors, and the 500 tire was kept on the market” (Lieff, Cabrase, Helmann, & Bernstein).

Time magazine reported that accidents caused by blowouts had resulted in more than 41 deaths and hundreds of serious injuries; the company had already replaced 3 million tires and spent millions of dollars in personal injury lawsuits. If Robertson had blown the whistle externally, such disasters for the public and the company could have been avoided. Unfortunately, it appears Firestone did not make the necessary organizational changes to prevent such disasters again, since the story repeated itself in 2000.

After an investigation by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Ford announced a recall and replacement of 3. 5 million Firestone tires in October 2000. This recall occurred after 200 deaths and 700 serious injuries had already been reported because of the unsafe tires. The ultimate result of inaction by these groups was that Firestone and Ford were called to testify before Congress, millions of dollars were spent settling lawsuits, and a century-long relationship between Ford and Firestone was severed in 2001.

There have been successful cases of whistle-blowing although even in these cases, the personal and professional toll on the individuals has been heavy. In 1996, Jeffrey Wigand, a tobacco researcher, revealed that Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corporation knew tobacco was addictive. His revelations had a dramatic impact on public policy and public perceptions of the tobacco industry. However, although he was vindicated by the attention he received in the media and by the fact that after his revelations, victims of tobacco-related illnesses began to be successful in their litigation against the tobacco companies.

Wigand still experienced severe personal consequences including threats against his family, loss of income, divorce, and the threat of litigation for breach of confidentiality. (Wigand) Is Whistle-blowing Good? The question “is whistle-blowing good for an organization? ” must be answered in the context of the outcome, even though it truly is a conflicting cultural norm, in which whistleblowers will encounter hostility and alienation. As Terance Miethe explains in his book, “Whistle-blowing at Work”, many people see the whistleblower as a “snitch,” or a “lowlife who betrays a sacred trust largely for personal gain. ” (Miethe)

Even if the “norm” is negativity towards whistle-blowers, there have been positive cases such as Karen Silkwood, who is seen as a “savior” who ultimately helped create important changes within organizations. This approach to whistle-blowers allows them to be seen as guardians of public and organizational accountability. (Frontline with PBS) Whistleblowers may still encounter difficulties when they appeal internally or go public with information that may damage their companies, my belief is that this behavior will lessen as the workforce becomes more educated and professional, in handling situations that not only affect them, but have the

potential to affect the general public when regulations, health or safety violations, or blatant lack of concern for the law is discovered. Whistle-blowing internally or externally of the company has a positive affect on the workforce to not just follow the “norm” and place the company above reproach. References Frontline With PBS. (n. d. ). Retrieved January, 2008, from Karen Silkwood Web site: http://www. pbs. org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/reaction/interact/silkwood. html Injuries, V. (n. d. ). Lieff, Cabraser, Helmann, & Bernstein. Retrieved January 27, 2008, from Bridgestone/Firestone Tire Recall Web site: http://www.

vehicle-injuries. com/firestone-tire-recall. htm? gclid=CJDR3o6Ll5ECFScXagodTir7OQ Miethe, T. Whistle-blowing at Work. Unknown. (n. d. ). History of Asbestos News. Retrieved January 26, 2008, from Legal Help Center Web site: http://www. legalhelpcenters. com/History-Of-Asbestos-Lawyer_279. html Unknown. (n. d. ). Whistle-blowing. Retrieved January 27, 2008, from Wikipedia Web site: http://en. wikipedia. org/wiki/Whistleblowing Wigand, J. (n. d. ). Dr Jeffrey Wigand. Retrieved January 27, 2008, from Dr Jeffrey Wigand Web site: http://www. jeffreywigand. com/