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Whistleblowing occurs when a member of a company goes outside of the company’s normal lines of authority to report significant wrongdoing, typically either to government authorities or to the news media. In some cases, the word “whistleblowing” may be used to describe situations in which a member of an company merely goes “over the head” of his immediate supervisor in order to raise serious concerns with those higher up in the organization.

Whistleblowing is controversial because, while it is often aimed at protecting the public or important stakeholders (such as consumers) from harm, it also involves what looks, from a company’s, a department’s, or a particular manager’s point of view, like a significant act of disloyalty. The metaphor of blowing the whistle summons the image of a referee calling a foul in a game—a far cry from being a loyal “team player” working to win the game for the team. Despite this imagery, social scientific studies of some actual corporate whistleblowers suggest they are often more loyal to their companies and the values of their companies than are typical employees. Their motivation for blowing the whistle is not to harm the company, but to save it from people who, through their wrongdoing, risk undermining the company and the values it stands for.

Many major companies now have, as part of their ethics and compliance programs, a whistleblowing “hotline”—a telephone number that employees (and sometimes others) can call in order to report wrongdoing. Some such hotlines can be used anonymously. Similarly, companies may have whistleblowing policies that seek to protect whistleblowers from retaliation by managers or co-workers on whom they blow the whistle.

Why do many whistleblowing hotlines allow employees to blow the whistle anonymously? This is generally because whistleblowing is often risky. Because it is so often (and often unfairly) seen as a form of disloyalty, whistleblowers are often fired and subjected to other forms of retaliation. In some places, this has led to legislation forbidding organizations from firing or otherwise punishing an individual who, in good faith, blows the whistle on organizational wrongdoing (including, for example, employee health and safety violations).

See also in CEBE:

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The Concise Encyclopedia of Business Ethics Copyright © 2023 by Chris MacDonald and Alexei Marcoux is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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