Five Ethical Dilemmas Faced by Employees in Whistle-Blowing

by Marianne Luke; Updated September 26, 2017
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Have you ever caught a fellow employee or manager acting against company policy? Many employees who see illegal action against their company from fellow employees or upper management struggle with the decision of whistle-blowing, meaning telling the higher-ups, or ignoring the action and remaining popular with a manager or fellow employees. Because of this ethical conundrum, many employees watch misconduct without speaking up. While whistle-blowing can improve how employees operate, it can also damage the whistle-blower's reputation among other employees and managers who may think he overstepped his bounds and label him a tattler.

Manager's Disapproval of Whistle-Blowing

A study by John P. Keenan found that while both employers and employees are empathetic to whistle-blowers, lower-level employees tend to be much more empathetic than upper management (see Reference 1). Some managers feel that whistle-blowing disrupts the hierarchy of power in a company and that a lower-level employee should not tattle on upper management decisions. That being said, many employees refrain from whistle-blowing in order to avoid conflict with upper management. For example, if an employee's boss was making underhanded deals, the employee would most likely not dispute it because of the hierarchy. While many states have been working on whistle-blower protection laws, employees who fear retribution or losing their jobs tend to watch upper management misconduct and let it continue.

Co-Workers' Disapproval of Whistle-Blowing

Another reason an employee may decide to refrain from whistle-blowing is because of the possible disapproval of co-workers. Because co-workers communicate together on a daily basis, they tend to form loyalties and are bound by the trust of other co-workers. Once an employee is revealed as a whistle-blower, if a fellow employee gets punished or fired because of it, the whistle-blower loses the trust of his co-workers who may feel betrayed, think that the whistle-blower is trying to get them fired or even think the whistle-blower is trying to look better than everyone else to get a promotion. Many employees avoid whistle-blowing in order to maintain loyalties and the trust community with fellow employees.

Affecting the Employee Personally

If employee or upper management misconduct is affecting the employee personally or disrupting his work, he has a higher possibility of whistle-blowing than if the misconduct was affecting another person. This is because he wants to be able to do his share of work and look good for upper management. If an employee or a manager was disrupting his work, he may rationalize that he will look bad for not doing his work if he lets the misconduct slide and that he'll look better as an employee if he tells another manager why he is having trouble with his work.

Loyalty to the Company

How loyal an employee feels to his company will also affect his chance of whistle-blowing or keeping quiet. If the employee feels disenfranchised or alienated from the company, he will feel less inclined to help fix company protocol and more inclined to watch out for himself. He may have the "mind your own business" attitude. On the other hand, an employee who feels he is a legitimate and important part of the company will often feel more loyal and will be more inclined to whistle-blow, feeling that it is his job to keep the business clean and reputable.

Evidence Against the Wrongdoer

Lastly, an indicator of whether or not an employee will feel comfortable whistle-blowing has to do with how much evidence the employee has against the perpetrator. If he has legitimate evidence proving that an employee or manager committed a crime against the company, he will be more likely to come forward. However, if he knows of foul play but feels he cannot prove it, he will often keep quiet. He does not want to falsely accuse anyone or rightly accuse someone but have a manager disagree with him based on his lack of evidence, because this would hurt his credibility.

About the Author

Marianne Luke has been writing professionally since 2005. She has experience writing instruction manuals, research, fiction, nonfiction and poetry, and she also reviews Orlando local music for "Orange Ave Lab" magazine. Luke earned a Bachelor of Arts in technical communications and creative writing from the University of Central Florida in 2010.

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