The word whistle-blower can trigger many different feelings for Americans. Much of the nation has very dichotomous feelings about whistle-blowers, either lauding them as heroes, or vilifying them as saboteurs. Individuals at the center of these whistle-blower stories are cast in different roles depending on the route that external media decides to take. While spectators decide for themselves whether the whistle-blower had good intentions or otherwise, the real question we should be asking is what kind of corporate culture within their organization allowed these events to transpire?
Whistle-blowing is not to be confused with “leaking,” another term that often appears in these narratives. In short summation, whistle-blowing is actually defined under the Whistle-blower Protection Act, describing a disclosure of information that an employee “reasonably believes” demonstrates “a violation of law, rule, or regulation; gross mismanagement; a gross waste of funds; an abuse of authority; or a substantial and specific threat to public health and safety.” These actions amount to misconduct, and are actionable. “Leaking” describes the act of indiscriminately releasing company information, regardless of whether or not that information constitutes some degree of ethical violation. The term “leaker” can also be ascribed to a legitimate whistle-blower in order to discredit them.
In reality, it is a myth that most whistle-blowers are “snitches” who go directly to external sources like the press or watchdog groups to report their organization’s problems. In most cases that have been denoted as “whistle-blowing” there are documented attempts by the whistle-blower to try and resolve the issue within their corporation or organization. It’s when those attempts to resolve the issue internally are exhausted that whistle-blowers often find themselves without recourse, and go to the media in order to get their story out there.
This is why those who work in corporate ethics and corporate compliance recommend a healthy corporate culture in order to prevent whistle-blowing from occurring in the first place. Healthy corporate cultures promote a climate of excellent communication in the pursuit of a common goal (usually outlined by a corporation’s established values or mission statement). When an issue is brought to the attention of leadership, and they are inspired by a company’s mission statement to do something about it, that is where true corporate progress occurs. The effects of a healthy company culture can actually be cyclical. When an employee reports an issue or misconduct to leadership, they might expect to receive some push back. However, when that employee is carefully heard, and taken seriously, it can foster a sense of value in the workforce, as they now know they are agents who can effect change. This inspires a higher level of engagement in employees, which leads to higher rates of productivity, which in turn leads to happier leadership, who are then more inclined to reward employees for their hard work. That all increases morale on behalf of the entire workforce, leading to a healthy company culture.
When the goal is teamwork and collaboration, there is no need to turn to external sources to shed light on an issue. A healthy company culture will create a climate where internal issues can be discussed and resolved through teamwork—not through media attention and public outrage. Whistle-blowers are not heroes or villains, depending on who you believe, but rather a symptom of dysfunction within a corporation or organization that cannot afford to be ignored.