Recently, Fortune magazine featured an article on the perils of being a whistleblower. If you discover your company or business is operating outside the bounds of the law, you have a tough decision to make. Do you stay quiet and let the violations continue—perhaps endangering employees or people in the community? Or do you report what’s happening, and suffer the consequences?
The Enron scandal (and many similar problems in other companies) has once again glorified whistleblowing. We can also invoke the memory of Karen Silkwood, the truth-teller of the 1970s who was murdered for her moral stance. There’s a certain heroism in calling bad behavior to account.
Many of us might want to think we are honest and courageous. "Sure," we tell ourselves, "I’m honest, I’m straightforward, and I want to do the right thing." Truth is, however, many of us actually decide to protect ourselves and our families, since blowing the whistle on corruption or illegal activity can be costly, crippling us forever in our chosen careers and labeling us as troublemakers.
I faced that challenge directly early in my working life. I was a lowly word processing analyst in a labor union office. (For anyone 30 and younger: this job was one step more advanced than keypunching in the pre-PC days.)
My job was simple—enter whatever was handed to me, and print it out. The problem was, some of what was handed to me looked mighty suspicious.
I talked over my concerns with my immediate boss. "Just enter what you’re given, and don’t ask too many questions," she cautioned me. I discussed my problem with my parents. "If you report it, you could be in danger," they warned. A friend in whom I confided said, "I want you to stay alive so you can be my friend." Maybe I could make a positive difference, I thought to myself, but maybe I’d also be talking to the fish at the bottom of a lake when it was all done. So I kept typing away, and I kept quiet.
Am I proud of this decision? No. Was it the right thing to do? I don’t know, even today. Part of me says it is important to be honest and transparent, and call bad behavior to account. Part of me says there are times when whistleblowing is right, and sometimes when it is downright stupid. Someone once told me, "You can burden people with too much truth."
So when do we tell the truth? After all, we can err on the other side—pretending not to see terrible wrongs being done, immediate dangers being tolerated, and incredible frauds being perpetrated. Fear can get in the way of justice and good ethical action. Sometimes whistleblowing can be self-serving, too, pushing one’s own moral Puritanism on others or exacting sweet revenge on a hated work adversary.
Whistleblowing is right, even necessary, from an ethical standpoint when the following conditions are met:
- Harm to many. The activity endangers entire communities, such as toxic dumping in a waterway, drug dealing in a school, or frauds or scams being foisted on vulnerable people.
- Grievous wrong. The activity physically injures, psychologically harms, or grossly intimidates individuals (i.e., sexual harassment), or defrauds people who otherwise are powerless to protect their interests (cooking the books).
- Social cost. The activity prevents qualified persons from having equal access to benefits available to all, or promotes repression, prejudice or hatred of people different from us.
In this way, we can see that a layperson or clergyperson in a church does the right thing by telling someone if he or she witnesses child sexual abuse. There should have been much more forthrightness in the Roman Catholic Church to prevent clergy with a record of abuse from migrating from parish to parish—or at Enron, before documents were shredded like confetti for a New Year’s Eve party.
But it can be a costly and lonely choice. Still, some practices are so obscene and harmful there is no other alternative but to speak up, with plenty of specific documentation and proof, to those authorities who can act decisively both to put a stop to the activity and to protect the person.
Family, friends and the community also need to close ranks, too, to make sure the person suffers no long-term consequences—and that the next person who is compelled to make this painful ethical choice has the courage and power to do the right thing at the right time. IBI