Edited by: Mourad Hasbaoui
CMDI Senior member
Whistleblowers are those employees, clients, suppliers or simply citizens who disclose, or “blow the whistle” on scandals, fraud, malpractices or corruption within the government or the private corporations. Robert A. Larmer, Ph.D. and the Chairman of the Philosophy Department at the University of New Brunswick defines it, “Whistleblowing by an employee is the act of complaining, either within the corporation or publicly, about a corporation’s unethical practices”(1). The whistleblowing is not an appealing activity. The target of the accusation may suffer, but so can the accuser, even if the accusations are substantiated.
The whistleblowers choose to disclosure avowals to surface either internally or externally. Internally, a whistleblower can bring allegations to the attention of other people within the same affiliated organization such as an immediate supervisor or Human Resources Department. Externally, a whistleblower can bring allegations to light by contacting an outside third party such as the media, federal government, law enforcement, or concerned citizens. Whistleblowers, however, take the risk of facing stiff reprisal and retaliation from those who are accused or alleged of wrongdoing. They may be ostracized and even driven from their institutions or go into hiding after the bells of alert have been released.
Deeper questions and theories of whistleblowing and why people choose to do so can be studied through an ethical and moral approach. Whistleblowing is a topic of ongoing ethical debate. Questions about its legitimacy can be studied through the field of Political Ethics. On one side, the leading arguments in the pro camp believe that whistleblowing is ethical because is a form of civil defiance and aims to protect the public from government wrongdoing and tyranny. In the opposite camp, some see whistleblowing as unethical for breaching confidentiality, especially in industries that handle sensitive client or patient information or matters of national security.
An example of a federal whistleblower case is the Veteran Administration during Obama’s Presidency in 2014 in Phoenix, Arizona. Its health care system began to fall remarkably on a policy stating veteran soldiers should get the healthcare they needed within 30 days, workers at the V.A in Phoenix devised a solution that involved entering information into a computer system, printing the screen and then not saved the record. This allowed them to hide the long wait time some veterans endured, sometimes longer than one year. This scheme was involved Arizona V.A employee’s front-line administrator all the way up to the top chain of management. Dr. Katherine Mitchell, a Phoenix Veterans Affairs Health Care System Iraq & Afghanistan Post-deployment Medical Director risked her career by exposing the cunning of scheduling data(2). She ignited a national scandal by revealing that 40 veterans died while stuck on the secret waitlist at the health care facility in the Grand Canyon State. She filed a confidential complaint with the VA Office of Inspector General and 10 days later she was placed on administrative leave pending an investigation. As a consequence of her action, former President Barack Obama ordered a thorough investigation into the situation in Arizona. After several months, a preliminary report from the OIG found a systemic problem at the health facilities nationwide and very serious and scheduling issues in Phoenix.
At the same token, another example of a corporate whistleblower case is the Wells Fargo Scandal. Wells Fargo employees secretly created millions of unauthorized bank and credit card accounts without the customers knowing it since…2011. The phony accounts earned the bank unwarranted fees and allowed Wells Fargo employees to boost their sales figures and make more money. It was estimated that the bank opened as many as 2 million accounts without the customer’s approval. The scope of the scandal is very disturbing because the customer had been paying fees on thousands of “ghost” accounts they did not even sign up for. Claudia Ponce de Leon was one of the many whistleblowers(3) who were terminated for informing superiors about employees opening unauthorized accounts. Many employees faced retaliation after reporting potential wrongdoing6. The former Labor Department Secretary Thomas Perez said that his department launched a “top-to-bottom” investigation in the whistleblower complaints(4). After investigation from the Labor Department and the US Senate, Wells Fargo with $185 million in fines, along with $5 million to refund customers.(5)
Whistleblowers play a critical role in democratic governments and corporate’s accountability. The United States has the Whistleblower Protection Act of 1989 to protect them from any retaliation or punishment.
- Robert A. Larmer. “Whistleblowing and employee loyalty.” Springer link.https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/BF00872319.
- U.S. House of Representative, “Written Testimony of Dr. Katherine L. Mitchell”. https://docs.house.gov/meetings/VR/VR08/20190625/109683/HHRG-116-VR08-Wstate-MitchellK-20190625.pdf
- Puzzanghera, Jim. “Wells Fargo faces ‘top-to-bottom’ Labor Department review for possible workplace violations.” Los Angeles Times. https://www.latimes.com/business/la-fi-wells-fargo-overtime-20160927-snap-story.html.
- Marsh, Ann. “Wells Fargo fighting order to rehire whistleblower.” American Banker. https://www.americanbanker.com/news/wells-fargo-fighting-order-to-rehire-whistleblower.
- Mclannahan, Ben. “The Whistleblowers.” Financial Times. https://ig.ft.com/special-reports/whistleblowers/