Whistle-Blowing

Whistle-blowing is defined as “conveying information about a serious moral problem in one’s organization outside approved organizational channels to someone in a position to take action, either inside or outside the organization” (Martin, 2008). Some additional information to add to the definition is that whistle-blowing “might consist of communicating information against organizational pressures, such as wishes of supervisors and colleagues” (Martin, 2008). Members of organizations may participate in unethical actions which Frederick Bird (1996) describes as moral silence, moral deafness, and moral blindness. Moral silence is the avoidance of whistle-blowing by persons not voicing objections, not advocating ideals, and not holding others sufficiently accountable for their actions. Moral deafness is when people are not willing to listen; people lack focus on the most important points of a situation, avoid hearing bad news, and may not understand a situation because of inappropriate assumptions. Moral blindness involves losing sight of issues or problems by overlooking consequences. It may also involve ignoring obligations, promises, principles, and expectations because of bias or stereotypes. The result of moral deafness, silence, and blindness includes unaddressed issues, little-to-no accountability or responsibility for actions, moral stress, and a confused role of ethics. Most organizations do maintain an open-door policy for free communication in theory, but in practice there are pressures against challenging colleagues. Science has little need for whistle-blowing because science is self-correcting; retesting experiments reveals potential problems.

Science is a profession that depends on the commitment to truth because the work conducted primarily builds on work of others; hence, honesty and integrity are the most critical components of science (Bird, 2001). If necessary, whistle-blowing does fall within the scientist’s obligation to help others and the profession. Whistle-blowing also serves individuals by helping them maintain their responsibility as ethical professionals. It has limits and exceptions—including obligations to employers and colleagues— so it is important to make sure that whistle-blowing is the appropriate action for a given situation.

A whistle-blower is a person who reports unethical or illegal conduct or wrongdoing outside of normal internal communication to publicly expose problems faced by an organization regarding ethics, legality, or safety. This person is typically courageous and holds high personal and professional standards. Studies have shown that women are actually less likely than men to act as whistle-blowers. Time Magazine did a piece on three female whistleblowers for the annual “Persons of the Year” article in 2002, one of whom brought attention to misconduct that was occurring in the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Examples and further information are provided in Chapter 9. Whistle-blowers may be viewed as heroes or as traitors, but there is a strong negative connotation involved with them, so before taking action, according to (Johannesen et al., 2008), a person should consider the following points:

Am I fairly and accurately depicting the seriousness of the problem?

Have I secured the information properly, analyzed it appropriately, and presented it fairly?

Do my motives spring from serving a public need more than from serving a personal desire?

Have I fully tried to have the problem corrected within the organization?

Should I blow the whistle while still a member of the organization or after having left it?

Should I reveal my identity or keep it secret?

Have I made claims with proper intensity and with appropriate frequency?

How ethical have I been in selecting my audience?

How ethical is it for me, a participant in the functioning of the group, to assume the role of the judge?

How ethical is it to set into motion an act that will likely be very costly to many people (emotionally and financially)?

How neutral have I been in choosing my audience?

Who am I to judge?

Am I living up to the standard of the organization and colleagues (loyalty)?

Am I ethical according to the profession?

How will my actions affect my family and affiliates?

Am I true to myself, my integrity, and my well-being?

How will this affect basic human values (e.g., freedom, courage, loyalty, judgment)?

Once a person decides to blow the whistle, there are guidelines to follow to report the suspected misconduct. First, the person should have morally good motives. In other words, the person should make a report to describe illegal, unethical, or immoral actions, not to advance his or her own career or harm a rival. It has been reported that about half of whistle-blowers act from questionable motives and evidence that can damage the reputation of the whistle-blower, the targeted individuals, or the organization. Those who suspect fraud do not always have a solid proof, and if they make claims, counter claims of disloyalty are often brought against them. Egos and defective collaborations complicate the process and validity of whistle-blowing. False claims or claims from people with corrupt motives may desensitize managers to reports of unethical behavior.

The next guideline in reporting misconduct is that the person should have some well-documented evidence before making accusations. The evidence should include more than hearsay or personal observations. Also, the person should make accusations to the relevant authorities and go outside the organization only as a last resort. Potential repercussions for the whistleblower are possibly avoided by going to the proper authority, preventing in-house gossip, and not specifically naming the agency. Finally, the person should carefully deliberate his or her actions and avoid a rush to judgment. Sometimes things are not what they seem; however, even actions perceived as unethical may be considered so regardless of the truth.

There are three stages of social confrontation of unethical behavior: pre-confrontation, initial confrontation, and post-confrontation. Preconfrontation is the step in which witnesses assure that they are, in fact, witnessing the behavior they believe is occurring, assess the severity of the action, monitor the behavior of those involved in the behavior, and talk with others to determine if anyone else has observed the behavior and to gauge if colleagues also feel that the issue is important to prevent. The person must decide if the unethical action requires urgent attention, analyzes the relationship between himself or herself and the accused, decides whether confrontation is his or her responsibility, anticipates the accused person’s reaction, determines what personal resources he or she needs to invest, decides on the appropriate time and place for confrontation, and decides the costs versus rewards of confrontation. During the initial confrontation, the witness informs the accused that he or she violated a rule or standard. The phrasing used by the witness sets the tone, so he or she must be cautious of accusation and blame. Finally, post-confrontation may occur after the initial confrontation if the need arises. Guidelines serve to aid people in reporting misconduct (https://www.ethics.org/ecihome/ research/nbes/nbes-reports/nbes-2013).

In 2013, a study of Americans with a wide range of jobs in a variety of agencies was conducted by the National Business Ethics Survey (NBES). The results showed that one-third of those surveyed had encountered a situation that invited ethical misconduct at least once, and more than a quarter had witnessed ongoing patterns of misconduct. Although these numbers may seem high, the totals are down from the past two NBES surveys and are at a record low. Managers are reportedly responsible for 60% of the misconduct, which is an area for concern. The most common types of misconduct noted were intimidating behavior and corruption. One in five Americans who actually reported misconduct said they experienced some sort of retaliation. People who did not report the misconduct they witnessed believed that nothing would be done, had a fear of retaliation, thought someone else would speak up, or did not know the proper procedures for reporting misconduct (Johannesen et al., 2008). One of the reasons why whistle-blowers are seen as courageous individuals is because many of them face negative consequences for their actions.

Oftentimes, reporting misconduct has a negative effect on the reporter, even though he or she is obeying his or her ethical duty to speak up if unethical behavior is suspected. Possible repercussions, such as losing one’s job, may make a person less likely to report misconduct. Professional cultures impose negativity toward whistle-blowers. In addition, there are unspoken pressures against challenging those in positions of authority by uncovering misconduct. Organizations should have procedures in place for scientists to request a case review or reexamination if something does not seem right. Aside from common pressures, a person may place a greater value on loyalty, which may account for why someone would withhold information regarding misconduct. Despite legal and institutional protections, it is likely that people who wish to report unethical conduct in science will have to choose between blowing the whistle and protecting their own personal interests. Such interests refer to their job, reputation, or friendships. Due to the potential negative consequences, it is helpful for agencies to have standards in place for reporting misconduct before they are needed.

Research from 2017 shows that, although the leading forensic science professional organizations do not maintain formal data on ethics complaints, there are identifiable trends. A representative for the International Association for Identification acknowledged that it is rare for the organization to receive complaints on members; typically, if a member is involved in an issue, it occurs at the agency level and does not reach the professional organization. The American Academy of Forensic Sciences (AAFS) is different in that the ethics committee receives complaints such as experts falsifying tests or results; competing experts disagreeing about testimony, reports, or standards provided; and falsification of credentials. A representative for the AAFS ethics committee noted that actionable complaints are not commonly resolved because the members choose to simply leave the organization. There is an endorsement in the forensic community to move toward the standardization of ethical practices, and this information supports that idea because although the leading professional organizations maintain their own codes, it has little impact on the profession and focuses more on individual membership, which is voluntary (Calhoun and Barsley interviews, 2017).

 
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