What is a Whistleblower?
On the simplest level, a whistleblower is someone who reports waste, fraud, abuse, corruption, or dangers to public health and safety to someone who is in a position to rectify the wrongdoing. A whistleblower typically works inside of the organization where the wrongdoing is taking place; however, being an agency or company “insider” is not essential to serving as a whistleblower. What matters is that the individual discloses information about wrongdoing that otherwise would not be known.
While different theorists give different definitions of whistleblowing (see, e.g., Brenkert 2010; Davis 2003; DeGeorge 2009), the following elements are usually present:
(1) insider status,
(2) non-public information,
(3) illegal or immoral activity,
(4) avoidance of the usual chain of command in the firm,
(5) intention to solve the problem.
The debate about whistleblowing tends to focus on the question of when whistleblowing is justified—in the sense of when it is permissible, or when it is required. This debate assumes that whistleblowing requires justification, or is wrong, other things equal. Many business ethicists make this assumption on the grounds that employees have a pro tanto duty of loyalty to their firms (see, e.g., Boatright 2009a). Against this, some argue that the relationship between the firm and the employee is purely transactional—an exchange of money for labor (Duska 2000)—and so is not normatively robust enough to ground a duty of loyalty. (For a discussion of this issue, see the entry on loyalty.)
One prominent justification for whistleblowing is due to DeGeorge (2009). According to him, it is permissible for an employee to blow the whistle when his doing so will prevent harm to society. (In a similar account, Brenkert (2010) says that the duty to blow the whistle derives from a duty to prevent wrongdoing.) The duty to prevent harm has more weight than the duty of loyalty. To determine whether whistleblowing is not simply permissible but required, DeGeorge says, we must take into account the likely success of the whistleblowing and its effects on the whistleblower himself. Humans are tribal creatures, and whistleblowers are often treated badly by their colleagues. So if whistleblowing is unlikely to succeed, then it need not be attempted. The lack of a moral requirement to blow the whistle in these cases can be seen as a specific instance of the rule that individuals need not make huge personal sacrifices to promote others’ interests, even when those interests are important.
Another account of whistleblowing is given by Davis (2003). Like Brenkert (and unlike DeGeorge), Davis focuses on the wrongdoing that the firm engages in (not the harm it causes). According to Davis, however, the point of whistleblowing is not so much to prevent wrongdoing but to avoid one’s own complicity in it. He says that an employee is required to blow the whistle on her firm when she believes that it is engaged in seriously wrongful behavior, and her work for the firm “will contribute … to the wrong if … she does not publicly reveal what she knows” (2003: 550). An unusual feature of Davis’s account is that it limits whistleblowers to people who are currently firm insiders. You cannot “blow the whistle” on a firm after you have left it.
Whistleblowing picks out a real and important phenomenon. But it does not seem morally distinctive, in the sense that the values and duties involved in it are familiar. Loyalty to an individual (or group) may require that we give preference to her (or their) interests, to an extent. And yet, in general, we should avoid complicity in immoral behavior, and should also make an effort to prevent harm and wrongdoing, especially when our efforts are likely to succeed and are not personally very costly. On the accounts given above, whistleblowing is simply the attempt to act in accordance with these values, and discharge these duties, in the context of the workplace.