General attitudes to whistleblowing in the workplace have changed tremendously even over the last decade. There was once a time when anyone working for an organization was expected to be completely loyal. But, generational shifts, the speed of dissemination of information, and changes in public expectations have created a business environment where ethical practices are an important focus.
Here are two famous examples of whistleblowing in the workplace and how they have contributed to improving our workplaces:
- Unsafe working environments for employees
Many people work in environments where there is significant risk of injury or death. In days gone by, rules and regulations governing health and safety in the workplace were very different.
Karen Silkwood was one of the most famous whistleblowers, and a major movie was even made depicting the events. She blew the whistle on dangerous workplace practices when she discovered evidence that her employers were falsifying reports and retouching photographs.
Karen Silkwood was one of many employees who made fuel rods for nuclear reactors. After she became convinced that her employers were cutting corners on safety and placing them at risk of radiation poisoning, Karen Silkwood blew the whistle. Though she later died in an auto accident under suspicious circumstances, her bravery changed workplace conditions in the nuclear industry for the better.
- Unethical practices that endanger the public
We all understand now that cigarettes and tobacco products are dangerous to our health. But, there was a time not so long ago when so-called “big tobacco” companies were engaging in even shadier business practices.
Jeffrey Wigand worked for one of these rich tobacco companies, and blew the whistle on them in 1996. He reported that his employers were enhancing the addictive qualities of nicotine by adding ammonia to their tobacco products. This was resulting in a massive health risk to the public.
His organization, of course, didn’t like this at all. Even while he was working with the authorities in the case, he and his family had to endure harassment and death threats.
At the time that Wigand reported on his employers, there was very little protection for whistleblowers. In 2002, the Sarbanes-Oxley Corporate Reform Act was introduced and provided much stronger legal protections for whistleblowers in publicly listed companies. This change has certainly contributed to a better workplace culture where whistleblowers are less fearful of reprisals.
Whistleblowing Helps Business To Thrive
Even though the general attitude to whistleblowing has shifted tremendously, it’s always wise to be vigilant. Indeed, the best way to discourage whistleblowing is actually to encourage it. When you encourage reporting in your own organization, you signal to everyone that you will not stand for unethical or inappropriate behavior. Consequently, this minimizes unethical behavior and decreases the need for whistleblowing.
While the cases of whistleblowing above are very well-known and have contributed immensely to the positive workplace changes that we enjoy today, there’s still a long way to go. The relatively recent global financial crisis signals to all of us that unethical practices and inappropriate behavior still exists across many workplaces. It’s up to us to continue the vital legacy of whistleblowing without fear.