The term whistleblower refers to an individual who shines a public light on illegal or immoral acts that he witnesses within his own organization. Whistleblowing is controversial since employees must balance organizational loyalty with the potential benefits of solving a problem by shoving the organization in the spotlight. Some events, like blatant sexual harassment or or deliberate theft, are easily identified examples of when a whistleblower should act. However, most instances are less clear cut. Therefore, a would-be whistleblower needs to understand the ethics of taking his claim public.
The first ethical responsibility of a potential whistleblower is to check her motivations to make sure there is not a conflict of interest. In some cases, whistleblowers can profit financially or professionally by going public with a claim. The best interest of the public, not financial gain, attention or revenge, should be at the core of the decision to take more drastic action. In addition, potential whistleblowers should check that they have exhausted all possible means of complaint before going public.
Having detailed evidence about the claim is another ethical responsibility of whistleblowing. Hearsay and personal opinions are not enough to toss company loyalty aside. Another benefit of collecting detailed evidence is that a whistleblower's claim is more likely to be believed.
Before going public, potential whistleblowers need to ask themselves whether or not their actions prevent serious harm to an individual, such as repeated safety infractions, or to a group of people, such as fraud. Going public about a boss's irritating but harmless habits is not ethical whistleblowing.
Would-be whistleblowers have an ethical responsibility to make sure they are not guilty of the same infraction they are reporting. Whistleblowers must be able to report a claim with a clear conscience. Otherwise, the line between doing the right thing by reporting an infraction and tattling first to avoid punishment begins to blur.
Whistleblowers should act on information that could hurt individuals but stand down for cases of inappropriate but non-detrimental infractions. However, many situations fall in between these two easily recognizable ends of the spectrum. For cases that are not as clear cut, whistleblowers have an ethical responsibility to consider whether or not the problem can be solved by their actions. If the answer is yes, proceed. If the answer is no, the whistleblower may have to learn to live with the issue and make a stand by getting a new job.