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Key Ethical Issues in Whistleblowing

Updated on February 9, 2022
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Nyamweya is a global researcher with many years of experience on practical research on a diversity of topics

Whistleblowing carries with it ethical dilemma since people who wish to become whistleblower have to ponder between opposing loyalties, the higher morality, loyalty to the society and loyalty to the employer/organization where he or she works. By definition, whistleblowing is an attempt by an employee or former employees of an entity in bringing to the limelight what they understand to be a misdemeanor or wrong doing performed by the specific organization. Among the major problem with whistle blowing is that in most cases, such people (whistleblowers) encounter relation, which could range from being fired to being vilified. Many societies identify the need for whistle blowing, as well as the essentiality of exposing any form of wrong doing and corruption. There is also a need for development of the legal structures that could facilitate the protection and encourage the whistleblower, and indication of the recognition of the society that whistle blowing as being a valuable act. Intrinsic in the discussion of this matter is the conflict and comparison of the responsibilities, both the employee and the employer which they have to themselves, to the society, to organization and to one another. In a sense, the whistleblower challenges this relationship since he accuses the employed of having abrogated his duty. Consequently, the employer claims that the specific employee who had involved himself in whistle blowing is performing precisely through revealing the secrets, whether true or not. The law affirms that it is socially valuable to reveal the truth and that both parties are mandated to do so. However, exposing false information by either side has to be punished. In this case, responsibility and freedom have to go hand in hand.

Moral Conflicts in Whistleblowing

Moral conflicts at different levels confront all who ponder on whether to expose the risks, corruption or injustices occurring at their place of work. For example, the whistleblower may need to decide if taking all things into account, revealing such secrets will of benefit to the public. Mostly, such a decision may be complex to make, owing to the factual uncertainties. These uncertainties are in regard to one behind the neglect, risk or abuse, the extent of the threat and how this exposure will bring changes for the betterment of the society. Furthermore, a whistleblower would need to first weigh his responsibility/obligation to the employer, responsibility to fellow colleagues and responsibility of safeguarding the public interest. On one end, the professional ethics may emphasize loyalty to fellow colleagues and associated. A good example may be derived from the U.S code of ethics which require employees to expose any form of corrupt practices and to put loyalty to the country and moral principles above that of party, government or individuals. Similarly, there are many professional associations which require their members to speak against abuses that threaten the wellbeing, health and or safety of the public.

The other conflicts which whistleblowers have to face are personal in nature. They may cut across being fired, placed to work in departments that are not good at and being unjustly impaired. Even in contexts that where they have noted that the facts or issues need to be exposed and that their responsibilities of doing so overrides those of their institutions and colleagues, there are often “justified” reasons to fear the outcome of conducting such responsibilities. Despite this duty being seeming strong theoretically, they practically understand that there is a likelihood of retaliation. Consequently, their capability of supporting themselves and their families as well as their careers may be jeopardized. A government handbook written at the time of Nixon administration issued recommendations for whistleblowers on government organizations to be reassigned in remote places in an attempt to compel them to resign. Other measures were to downgrade whistleblowers to junior ranks or given duties for which they are not qualified for. There are also cases where whistleblowers may be ordered to go for a psychiatrics test, where they would be declared not fit for service and required to reassign from the organization.

Case Study

The nature of the moral conflict involved in whistleblowing could be derived from one Jeffrey Wigand, a one time employee of Brown& Williamson Tobacco Corp. His decision to expose the ills committed by his company subjected him to a life of nightmare where he could not control it. On one hand, he was accused of abrogating theduty of not exposing the secrets of his employer and subsequently, a Kentucky state judge restricted him from continuing to do so. The charge against him was supported by other cigarrate manufacturers such as Viceroy, Kool and Capri Cigarettes'. These companies had been afraid that the exposure could damage their image in the market. Wigand was subjected to intense emotional and physical distress such as being questioned and spending time away from families. Apart from losing his job at the said company, he and his family had to always live in fear because he could not know who was tracking him down. His family had lived under death threats while his character and reputation had been literally smeared.

The actions by Wigant are claimed to have been stirred by the moral outrage which he could not contain because of the risks associated with the practices of B$ W. He had to practically live under hiding, and” living like an animal”. This is despite the fact that he had been heralded and popular for his “heroic act” which had led him to be awarded $5,000. In fact, he goes on to affirm that what he had been subjected to will deter any potential whistleblower from exposing the ills committed by their respective firms. According to him, this was one way of scaring the would be whistleblowers in their organizations. Practically speaking, the whistleblowing decision subjected Jeffrey Wigand from one crisis to another. It became necessary to use secret phone numbers and any meeting with another man had to be done under conspiracy. This was an attempt to avoid consistent investigators from courts, F.B.I and risks from the developed enemies. This is a kind of life which many whistleblowers are subjected to.

Ethics in Whistleblowing

Employees who consider whistleblowing must be careful on how to handle themselves. The authors explain that an employee must, prior to challenging an institution understand the operation of a corporation and the reaction of corporate bureaucracies to troublemakers. They also point that whistleblowers have to be clear on their objectives and responsibilities. Among the objectives may include the necessity of protecting the public from risks and hazards, responsibilities of being a good citizen or compensation for damages.

Whenever an employee decides to hire an attorney, the attorneys motivation in taking over the case has to be aligned with the objective of the whistleblower, whether it is compensation for damages and or hazard or risks to the public. It is also important to evaluate and do research on the best channels disclosing such sensitive information. Among the channels may include, but not limited to advocacy groups, corporate management, public government agencies, the media, government representatives and hotlines. Devine and Maassarani continue to reveal that effective whistleblowing hinges more on relationships than on official legal resources or rights. Relationships are as critical as the quality of the and efficacy of the strategy and evidence. Moreover, advocacy entities may be an important partner for a whistleblower. In particular, these organizations could provide necessary connections, research, resources and advice on what need to be done.

Organizations are also mandated to instill ethical values in their systems to guide the reporting of issues. Among the approaches that can be used by organizations is to come up with a code of conduct for its employees. This code of conduct should be supplemented by specific outlines on how various concerns should be addressed. If such measure are taken seriously, these will prevent potential whistleblowers from exposing vital information to the public.


In conclusion, value based dilemmas and morality in the workplace may not be a free ride, particularly when employees are required to choose on what is wrong and what is right in accordance to their own principles. In essence, employees are required to make sound decision when deciding to become whistleblowers and be ready for all the implications. Forward thinking employees who decide to become whistleblowers must be well prepared for the possible conflict of interest that usually accrue from the diversity of values, opinions and culture in the workplace. Nonetheless, handling of ethical issues in the workplace necessitates a cautious and steady approach in matters which could be potentially illegal or dangerous.

In the corporate world, whistleblowers such as Jeffrey Wigand have from this case study noted to face violent and economic threats. The other threats are the fear of serving prison time and being blacklisted. Because of such devastating consequences, it is important for corporate whistleblowers to carefully consider their decisions prior to exposing sensitive information. In this perspective, they have to carefully weight their ethical and moral obligations against their own personal wellbeing.


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