Over the past decade the words “whistleblower” and “whistleblowing” have been featured prominently, and frequently, in the national news. Lengthy media coverage of so-called whistleblowers like Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden, and Julian Assange have virtually revived the term–a term which has lied mostly dormant since the Gordon Gekko era of the early 1980’s.
In fact, the sudden increase in “whistleblowing” that seemingly began in the later years of the early 2000’s caused the U.S. Justice Department to call for more legal protections for whistleblowers while simultaneously prosecuting those most commonly associated with the term.
If that seems quixotic, it’s because most whistleblowers do not implicate the state in their complaints, in fact the vast majority of whistleblowers come from the private sector and their accusations generally involve business, not government.
But what does it mean to be a “whistleblower,” and why has “whistleblowing” become such a hot button issue in the worlds of commerce, finance, and business more broadly?
What is Whistleblowing?
In the context of business, to “whistleblow” means to bring attention to a perceived problem or ethical infraction within the organization for which you work. To follow the analogy all the way, this act of bringing attention is the sound of the whistle itself, with the “blower” being the concerned employee.
What does this mean in the real world? Put simply, an employee witnesses or experiences something they think is wrong or unethical and they approach either the media or government regulators with their concerns, instead of engaging with the company’s own chain-of-command, in an attempt to solve the problem.
And while this may seem underhanded or disloyal, many whistleblowers actually have good reasons for circumventing their organization’s oversight of the issue. Often, as we’ve discussed elsewhere, the managers and supervisors tasked with solving these kinds of problems are actually participating in the ethical violations themselves.
A circumstance such as this might actually force a loyal employee who would normally bring their concerns to the proper corporate authorities to go outside the company in an attempt to address their grievance. Thus, whistleblowing is often stigmatized because those who choose to “go behind a company’s back” sometimes bring negative attention to the organization as a side-effect of their attempt to solve the problem.
But Why Is Whistleblowing Becoming More Popular?
As whistleblowing has become an increasingly talked about phenomenon, more people have chosen to engage in it.
Ultimately, a company that has a professional and thorough system of ethics and compliance can avoid problems by giving employees with legitimate complaints an effective means of solving those problems without involving outside organizations.
In short, a skilled human resources department or contractor can save an organization time and money by resolving whistleblower concerns before outside organizations are called. An ethics hotline and system are an integral part to identifying these concerns before they become a bigger problem.