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A Word to the Whistle-Blower

June 17, 2002
Related Topics: Ethics, Featured Article, HR & Business Administration
J oan Dubinsky, attorney and business ethicist, says it’s HR’s job to understand what whistle-blowing is and its consequences. She offers the following ethical considerations for both HR and potential whistle-blowers:

What is whistle-blowing-really? Whistle-blowing is the attempt by a current or former employee to disclose what he or she believes to be wrongdoing committed by an organization. The whistle-blower calls attention to practices that he or she believes are illegal or immoral, if not just plain wrong. In the classic case, the whistle-blower discloses information to an outside authority, such as the press, regulatory agencies, public-interest groups, or the Department of Justice. What the whistle-blower discloses must be substantial. It cannot be mere gossip or speculation. In the classic case, the whistle-blower speaks up in order to avert harm that could be prevented.

When is whistle-blowing justified? Disclosing information internally that is not commonly known inside the company in order to prevent harm is not whistle-blowing. The hard question is when, if ever, should you go outside the company to shed light on some business practice that you believe is questionable? You should try to correct the practice inside the company first. Take the matter “up the ladder,” in order to preserve confidentiality and to demonstrate loyalty to the company. Here are some other standards to consider:

  • If uncorrected, the practice will cause harm to an individual or the general public.
  • Make sure that you have your facts straight and that the practice really is one that is questionable.
  • Be fairly certain that by bringing the matter before an outside group, the problem can be corrected and the harm avoided. There has to be some positive gain.
  • Finally, weigh the personal risks that you may face if you choose to be a whistle-blower. Former employees can be just as powerful advocates for change.

Applying the standards: When we apply these standards to our dilemma, we come out on the side of disclosure, provided that you do your homework, first. There is great potential here for substantial damage. The government could be overcharged. The taxpayers could pay more than they should. The company could engage in illegal conduct. If convicted, the company could pay extensive fines. Executives could personally be held liable and face criminal and civil penalties as well. The company could be banned from contracting with the federal government. You are in the best position to speak up internally to draw attention to the questionable accounting practice in order to correct it. You also know the channels—both formal and informal. If you have exhausted those channels and the harmful practice persists, then and only then should you speak up externally and “blow the whistle” in order to correct the problem, and prevent harm to others.

Workforce, July 2002, p. 28 -- Subscribe Now!

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