Do Employees Have an Ethical Duty to Whistleblow?

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Deciding whether to blow the whistle or not can present an ethical quandary for an employee. For some, considerations of loyalty and the company's trust create strong incentives to keep knowledge of the firm's untoward behavior to themselves. However, ethicists studying the phenomenon see whistleblowing as an ethical imperative, provided certain conditions have been met.

Loyalty to Employer

  • Ethicists Norman Bowie and Sisela Bok believe that an employee's loyalty to his employer is not absolute and that the ethical duty to blow the whistle overrides the employee's obligation of loyalty if the following conditions are met: Blowing the whistle will prevent unnecessary harm to others; the whistleblower has exhausted all internal procedures for rectifying the problem; the evidence would persuade a reasonable individual that the company is engaged in wrongdoing; the employer's behavior could result in serious danger; the whistleblowing would satisfy the employee's acknowledged duty to expose and avoid moral violations, and that the whistleblowing has a reasonable chance of succeeding.

Misplaced Loyalty

  • Ethicist Ronald Duska believes whistleblowing is not an act of disloyalty and needs no justification whatsoever. Duska reasons that a company should not be an object of loyalty for its employees. Loyalty, says Duska, arises within a human-to-human context, and although a company is usually a group of people, the group exists for selfish reasons of profit and self-interest. According to Duska, loyalty toward a company bestows upon it a status it does not deserve, therefore blowing the whistle under warranted circumstances is the right thing to do.

Cogs in a Wheel

  • In many large organizations, employees can be made to feel like powerless, irrelevant cogs in a wheel where relentless company prioritization and conformity act to dull an employee's ethical judgment. In such situations, the act of whistleblowing can take an enormous amount of moral courage. Researcher Larry May reasons that if such employees are left on their own to decide whether to blow the whistle, the occasion of whistleblowing on large companies will continue to be rare. May reasons that these employees would benefit greatly from outside communities and associations providing support and moral context that would countervail against the indifference and threat of retaliation by large organizations.

Encouraging Whistleblowing

  • Though whistleblowers are often regarded as heroes and saviors, they are also thought of as snitches and betrayers. Ethicist Lilanthi Ravishankar believes employers would benefit from developing a culture in their organizations that encourages internal whistleblowing. Establishing channels, like employee hotlines for reporting unethical behavior, maintaining strict confidentiality policies and training managers and supervisors to encourage openness are good ways to implement such a culture, says Ravishankar. By the time an employee blows the whistle to an outside entity a lot of damage to the company may have already occurred. Internal whistleblowing allows the organization to nip the problem in the bud.

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