A whistleblower is an employee, former employee, or member of an organization, especially a business or government agency, who reports misconduct to people or entities that have the power and presumed willingness to take corrective action. Generally the misconduct is a violation of law, rule, regulation and/or a direct threat to public interest, such as fraud, health/safety violations, and corruption.
Whistleblowers tend to surface in highly-regulated industries that can severely impact public well-being as well as the environment. These industries include but are not limited to energy, chemical, mining and banking.
Gregory Minor, Richard Hubbard and Dale Bridenbaugh, the GE Three, are three engineers at General Electric who were whistleblowers to safety concerns with several nuclear power plants run by GE’s nuclear power division in the United States. On February 2, 1976, the trio disclosed the information to journalists and reporters while, at the same time, resigning from their positions.
Ethical considerations[edit | edit source]
The Whistleblower has a duty to the public to report the misconduct for their safety. However there are other things to consider if the whistleblower then gets fired and blacklisted, then it will be much more difficult to look after himself and his family. While the act of whistleblowing is typically seen as ethically correct as it looks out for the well-being of the general public, individuals tend to refrain from becoming whistleblowers due to the detriment it causes on their career progression. While termination from the organization in which the individual acted as a whistleblower is common, it can also be difficult for the whistleblower to find employment from other businesses. There is a stigma of mistrust with whistleblowers as many employers fear they would disclose private, business affairs to authorities at the expense of the organization. In 2002, 90% of whistleblowers lost their jobs or were demoted, 27% faced lawsuits, 26% had psychiatric referrals, 17% lost their homes, and 8% were forced into bankruptcy.While it varies between countries, the legal protection to prevent the unjust termination of whistleblowers is generally poor.
The Professional Engineers of Ontario have a well written guide, called a Guideline for Professional Engineering Practice, to aid members in making such difficult decisions. By law, (Article 8 of Section 77 of Ontario Regulation 941) an engineer must expose unethical situations or can face consequences for negligence. The steps outlined in the guideline are beneficial for whistleblowers in general, and are not restricted to engineers. The main steps advise the engineer to be sure an unethical situation has in fact occurred and to notify the person of this situation. If the person does not fix this issue, then the engineer should report to management and then to the required organization. This document stresses the fact that “No one should take this step without seriously considering whether it is necessary”, meaning whistleblowing should be a last resort after all other options have been exhausted.
Generally speaking, there are several criteria that must exist for whistleblowing to be justifiable. First it must be identified that the company is putting the public in danger, whether through its product or policies. In most cases whistleblowing is employed to prevent physical harm to either the user of a given product or the general public. In identifying a given threat, it becomes the responsibility of the employee to alert their immediate supervisor in an attempt to have it corrected. If action is not taken at this level, the employee must then work their way up through higher levels of management exhausting all possibilities within the company. It is only when the employee reaches the top of the managerial ladder that he or she should seriously consider whistleblowing. In addition, the employee must be able to prove the existence of the risk. This includes having documented evidence that would convince a reasonable, impartial observer that their view of the situation is correct and the public is in danger. This evidence may include calculations, simulations or prior case studies. Finally, with substantial evidence and having exhausted the internal possibilities, the employee must be confident that by going public changes will be brought about and the potential danger will be eliminated. Proceeding without this confidence will lead to tarnishing the reputation of both the accused company and the accusing employee.
One popular example where a similar guideline was used by whistleblowers was in the Challenger Space Shuttle explosion. The engineers involved tried informing senior management that the O-rings that enclosed the fuel tank would fail in the cold temperatures that would be observed on the launch date, but they did not blow the whistle due to time restraints.
Sources[edit | edit source]
Johnson, Deborah. Ethical Issues in Engineering. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1991.