When an employee or contractor releases news of illegal, unsafe or unethical conduct about his employer, that employee "blows the whistle" on his employer's behavior. Whistle-blowers have changed the course of history, from "Deep Throat" during the Watergate scandal of the 1970s to former Enron executive Sherron Watkins releasing details of the company's accounting practices. The act of blowing the whistle on corrupt organizations can have strong effects, both positive and negative, on those who step forward.
The whistle-blower serves a vital function in government and business. When corporations and government agencies step over legal and ethical lines, whistle-blowers can make these practices public knowledge, which can lead to violators being held accountable. The added scrutiny that comes with criminal investigations, civil lawsuits and media attention can influence the behavior of similar organizations. Companies and government offices that engage in similar misconduct may have previously believed they could get away with their bad behavior, but the ripple effect of the whistle-blower's efforts can bring about reforms.
The federal government's Whistleblower Protection Program protects employees who report violations of various workplace safety, environmental, financial reform and securities laws. The program protects from retaliation workers who blow the whistle on their employer's behavior. Retaliatory action can include dismissal, demotion, denial of benefits and reduction of working hours. Companies found to be in violation of the whistle-blower protection laws can face fines, suspension of government contracts and civil lawsuits.
The attention that a whistle-blower case brings, both to the employee and the company, can have a downside. Media interviews, legal testimony and government investigations can affect the whistle-blower's career prospects. While the outside world may view whistle-blowers as heroes for revealing corrupt behavior, industry insiders and hiring managers may see them as disloyal or indiscreet for not keeping company secrets and industry practices under wraps. The media attention may lead to the whistle-blower being blacklisted in his industry.
Although whistle-blowers may understand that their revelations serve the greater good, they also often endure personal problems from their actions. Media outlets in search of a story will delve deeper into the whistle-blowers' personal lives. Legal complications from criminal investigations and civil lawsuits against the company might require them to hire attorneys to defend themselves. They may also receive threats of retaliation from former supervisors and co-workers. All of this added stress can cause severe health problems and fractures in their relationships.