Reasons for Whistle-Blowing

by Bonnie Swain Schindly - Updated September 26, 2017
Whistle-blowers challenge employers, governments and public agencies when they suspect wrongdoing.

Whistle-blowers call attention to wrongdoing within governments, public agencies, corporate giants and small businesses. Some speak out against threats to public safety, such as tobacco researcher Jeffery Wigand who accused cigarette manufacturers of withholding the addictive nature of cigarettes. Other whistle-blowers take action when they suspect fraud, like WorldCom employee Cynthia Cooper who saw accounting violations at her workplace. But some critics suggest whistle-blowers step forward for self-serving reasons such as financial rewards.

Safety

Whistle-blowers try to prevent suffering when they sense the public welfare is endangered, attorney Jacqueline P. Taylor says in WomanOf.com. They are driven by high moral codes and selflessness when they speak their minds. For example, Firestone's director of development alerted senior managers that the company's 500 tire design experienced belt-edge separation when vehicles moved at top speeds, according to Santa Clara University Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. The employee's warnings were disregarded until the tire blowouts caused 41 traffic deaths, SCU reports. Likewise, many subprime mortgages were built on forged documents despite insiders' outcries that many borrowers could not afford their new homes, according to "Ethics Today." Whistle-blowers protested when they saw that dishonest lenders neglected to explain the high risks of subprime loans to customers.

Fraud

Accountability is also a reason for whistle-blowing. Employees who morph into whistle-blowers often approach their superiors for explanations of puzzling activities, never envisioning the consequences of those early conversations, according to attorney Taylor in the WomanOf.com interview. Taylor detected mismanagement within the Resolution Trust Corp. during the cleanup of the savings and loan industry. She describes her reasons for pursuing her hunches as protecting the public's right to know what their government was doing. Cynthia Cooper of telecom giant WorldCom stumbled upon unusual accounting entries and was inspired by senior executives' insistence that she stop probing, according to "CFO Magazine." She saw the damage that massive internal fraud would cause to employees and shareholders of WorldCom, which eventually collapsed amidst scandal.

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Rewards

Individual watchdogs sometimes walk away from their experiences with millions of dollars from court cases that award up to 25 percent of recoveries to the person who blew the whistle, according to Health Leaders Media. For example, a "New England Journal of Medicine" study discovered that whistleblowers were awarded more than $9 billion from 1996 to 2005 after exposing healthcare fraud. In 2009, pharmaceutical companies paid billions of dollars in settlements after whistle-blowers accused drug manufacturers of illegal marketing tactics. As a result, six whistle-blowers divided $102 million from those civil actions. These staggering sums cast doubt against the motives of people who report wrongdoing, Health Leaders Media reports. But whistle-blowers told researchers that they listened to their consciences – not their wallets – when challenging their employers.

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