The term whistleblower presents many conundrums, none of which are clear from the dictionary definition.
Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines a whistleblower as “a person who reveals or informs others of something secret.” Specifically, it describes “an employee who brings misconduct by an employer or other employee to the attention of a government or law enforcement agency.”
But whistleblowers have another problem rooted in cultural perceptions. Whistleblowers play an important role in exposing dangers and protecting organizations and the public from illegal or unethical behavior, yet they cause problems out of thin air. It is often assumed that This has led to the common misconception that whistleblowers are troublemakers and informants who speak out in malicious, destructive and unwelcome ways.
Looking again at the online dictionary, some of the top synonyms for whistleblower say a lot.
spy. traitor. mouse.
The negative associations of these words are well known as they are reflected in movies, books and series around the world. But the “whistleblowers” identified throughout the media, and indeed, tend to be stigmatized, or at least a grayscale, weighted by how the media treats large-scale incidents. I live in the area.
From one point of view, whistleblowers are heroes. In other countries, they are dissidents who cause chaos and upend the status quo. In many cases, presenting whistleblowers as troublemakers can undermine the importance of raising concerns and the consequences of disclosure.
Some of the high-profile whistleblowing cases of recent years demonstrate this gray area in which whistleblowers live.
In the United States, former CIA officer and former NSA contractor Edward Snowden leaked classified information about the US government’s mass surveillance program in 2013. It was canceled shortly after his disclosure. However, the revelations sparked a broader public debate about government surveillance and privacy rights.
In response, the US Congress passed the American Freedom Act in 2015. This limits the NSA’s ability to collect large amounts of data on citizens. Pulitzer Prize Committee awarded medals for public service to Washington Post and Guardian for articles on NSA documents provided by Snowden. Several other countries have since adopted new privacy laws in response to the content published by Snowden.
In the UK, media reports often refer to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange as a whistleblower. WikiLeaks revealed the extent of U.S. military involvement in Iraq, and in May 2019, the U.S. Department of Justice indicted Assange on 17 counts of Espionage Act violations. After repeated efforts to resist his extradition, the UK Home Office approved it in June 2022, which is on appeal again at the time of writing.
Assange’s actions have sparked significant debate about the Iraq war and its consequences, exposed evidence of corruption and human rights abuses in several countries, prompted improved government policies, and forced greater scrutiny of government actions. connected.
In France, Antoine Deltour exposed tax evasion by multinational corporations that deprive the government of tax revenues. Deltour was convicted in June 2016 of theft, breach of professional secrecy, and illegal access to his computer system, and was initially sentenced to 12 months in prison and a fine of 1,500 euros. It was handed down. However, Deltour’s actions forced the European Commission to investigate the tax agreement between Apple and the Irish government. As a result of its investigation, the European Court of Justice has ruled that tax agreements between governments and companies are illegal.
Despite the surrounding controversy, these cases have something in common. All of these high-profile whistleblowing outbreaks in the broader society prompted conversations and actions that lead to positive change, but they also had a significant impact on whistleblower perceptions.
Not all examples of whistleblowers fit this scale, but one thing is clear. Controversial cases like this often reinforce negative perceptions of who the whistleblower is, with labels taking over perceptions of their identity.
But how does this apply to whistleblowing at work? Is there a difference?
As mentioned earlier in this article, the current dictionary definition of a whistleblower assumes that the person disclosing the matter reports or exposes the matter to outside authorities, regulators, and even the media. This tends to be the common understanding of the term, as in the Snowden, Deltour, and Assange example above, where the whistleblower’s name tends to be sensationalized as the source of the uproar. Whistleblowing is not generally considered to be done behind closed doors.
In the workplace, this perception does not fit the standard mold.
For example, many organizations understand that in the long run it is better for whistleblowers to report internally. Internal investigations may resolve issues without outside intervention. This is the ideal solution. By the time a case reaches the public stage, your organization may already be facing reputational and financial damage.
With the large number of whistleblowing cases publicized around the world and the vast range of sources and opinions reflected, there is a lot to think about. Consideration:
- What prevented these scandals, realistically?
- Would it be more beneficial for society if no one exposed the underlying problem?
- Did the articles you read scrutinize the whistleblower’s actions and motives more than the exposed activities?
- If concerns had been raised before, would the issue have become a major global event?
- Where is the blame for the public outcry? Where is the blame when a series of smaller problems fails to be managed, or when a larger problem becomes apparent?
Whistleblowing can be seen as a prime example of prevention as the best cure. In short, the best way to protect your organization from harm (or potential damage caused by external disclosure) is to prevent certain issues from escalating. This does not mean swearing whistleblowers or whistleblowers. It means making a real moral investment in taking whistleblowing seriously and having the tools to handle it effectively.
By reframing and advocating whistleblowing as positive behavior for the organization (often called a speak-up program or simply raising concerns), whistleblowing becomes a collective rather than an individual-versus-many deviant behavior. can be configured as a personal responsibility. It makes it easier to discuss behaviors that “just had to say something” instead of trying to identify who should be the “whistleblower”.
This is a great step to dilute the negative association of “whistleblower” and reduce the threat of whistleblowing, but another term only addresses part of the problem. If an organization fails to offer or demonstrate protections for those who speak up, its outspoken program is doomed. Despite evolving global regulations to protect whistleblowers, instances of being labeled a ‘whistleblower’ and making life difficult for reporters are still prevalent. To combat this, organizations should ensure they have a clear counter-retaliation policy. Training should be frequent, easily accessible, and transparent. A code of conduct should be clear about what behavior the organization will not tolerate.
That said, while the term “whistleblower” is still problematic, we shouldn’t stop calling it as it is. Instead, organizations should focus on encouraging whistleblowing reporting as an important part of effective risk management. Assume that everyone is encouraged to speak up about the issues they see, and that the results are positively reinforced and celebrated. Whistleblowing then turns into one of the most important ways employees keep each other and the organization safe. And as organizations develop more positive relationships with whistleblowers and whistleblowers, perceptions of whistleblower value can change. First, start with labels that are roles rather than identities.