3 min read

Is Whistleblowing an Ethical Practice?

We’ve all heard the phrases. “No one likes a tattle-tale.” “Snitches get stitches.” It’s the words you’d expect to hear on a school playground, but the lessons we learn at that formative age might have an impact on the way we behave when we enter the workforce.

For many workers who become aware of non-compliance — either from an employee or from the company at large — their desire to be honest and ethical might run in conflict with their old “no tattling” mentality. After all, shouldn’t a worker be loyal to their company? Can whistleblowing ever really be ethical?

What is Whistleblowing?

Before we can discuss the ethics of whistleblowing, we should clearly define the word.

According to the National Whistleblowing Center, “a whistleblower is someone who reports waste, fraud, abuse, corruption, or dangers to public health and safety to someone who is in the position to rectify the wrongdoing.” In most cases, whistleblowers are employees who have information about their colleagues’ — or their company’s — inappropriate activities.

There are four main ways to be a whistleblower:

  •     Report wrongdoing or illegal activities to the proper authorities (supervisors, compliance hotlines, or even the Department of Justice)
  •     Refuse to participate in workplace wrongdoing
  •     Testify in a legal proceeding against the organization
  •     Leak evidence of wrongdoing to the media

What Does Whistleblowing Have to Do with Ethics?

At first glance, it might seem like whistleblowing is inherently ethical. After all, if your company is doing something wrong, you have a moral duty to alert the authorities of their wrongdoing! However, many individuals find themselves in a moral quagmire when they discover illegal activities or other forms of non-compliance within their organization.

Should they “tattle,” or remain loyal to their company?

The simple answer to this question is that morals should always trump company loyalty. But even employees who know this objective truth might hesitate to speak up. The reason? They might find themselves struggling with an ethical dilemma.

Ethical Dilemmas with Whistleblowing

For an employee, whistleblowing can feel like an act against their own interests. Forbes reports that whistleblowers can cost companies billions in corporate fines; in fact, whistleblowers in the U.S. cost their employers $3 billion in fines in 2014 alone! A whistleblower might worry that their actions could have a negative impact on their company’s financials — which could in turn affect their job.

Additionally, whistleblowing can feel like a violation of trust. This is especially true if the offending party works closely with the potential whistleblower. Humans are social creatures; so naturally, we become close with the people we see every day in the office. Blowing the whistle on our work friends can make us feel guilty, and that feeling can prevent workers from coming forward.

Of course, sometimes a worker’s hesitation doesn’t come from their personal beliefs. Your company culture can also impact whistleblowing. If your company doesn’t explicitly promote transparency — or worse, actively discourages it — your employees will not feel confident that they can come forward when they spot wrongdoing. They might worry that they won’t be considered a “team player,” or that their job might be at risk if they speak up. When this happens, your employees won’t feel comfortable in their workplace, and your company is always worse off for it.

Creating a Safe Culture for Whistleblowers

How can you create a culture of ethics and transparency in your organization? Remember: culture comes from the top. Your organization should make ethics a priority from day one, so your employees know they can come forward if they discover any wrongdoing.

How do you make ethics a priority in your company? There are many things you can do to encourage honest and ethical practices throughout your organization. Set up a compliance hotline where employees can report misconduct anonymously. Post signage in your workplace to remind everyone of when and how to report what they see. Make ethics a key element of your employee training curriculum.

Each of these steps can help you create a culture of ethical behavior and create an environment where whistleblowers can confidently and proactively weed out wrongdoing within your organization. If you make ethics a true cornerstone of your corporate culture, you just might find that there is hardly any wrongdoing for whistleblowers to report.

To learn more about ethics in business, contact ComplianceLine today. We will be happy to help you set up an ethics hotline, revamp your training curriculum, or offer a variety of other services that can help you create an ethical and transparent company culture for your organization.

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