The practice of whistleblowing has something of a conflicted reputation amongst employers, staff and the media. If employees feel they have no other course of action to affect change within a corporation, whistleblowing can be a critical step to take to get their voices heard. But that leads to the question, should whistleblowers be protected?
In December 2018 alone, whistleblowers have been responsible for exposing lies about financing by major transport networks, bullying within a major British bank, and ignored safety concerns over Uber’s self-driving cars. And yet one of the biggest stories of the year was of the five year jail term handed out to NSA contractor Reality Winner, who uncovered major revelations around Russian involvement in the 2016 Presidential elections.
However, executives are extremely wary of their employees speaking out against any business methods they find questionable. This may be because of the media outcry it could cause, wreaking havoc on a business’s reputation, and morale within the company at large.
Depending on the circumstances, there are merits to arguments on both sides, but some 53 percent of whistleblowers in the US have faced retaliation for coming forward. As providers of whistleblower lawsuit loans Nova Legal Funding point out, although there is legislation in place for whistleblowers, “sometimes this is not enough, [and] legal loopholes easily cloud [their] protection.” So does there need to be better measures to safeguard those who go public?
Why Do People Blow the Whistle?
Although whistleblowing is controversial, it has led to positive changes within a huge variety of companies. According to one recent survey, however, this is only because the companies for which whistleblowers actually work offer few formal channels of complaint. A poll by The Work Foundation showed that three-quarters of public sector companies had no formal policy about how to raise concerns about corporate behaviour, compared with just 32 percent in the private sector.
Despite this, whistleblowers clearly see the reward through the risk. A recent study, ten years in the making, shows that staff who call out poor corporate behaviour “play a key role in cleaning up a company’s financial and corporate culture”. If, in the long term, whistleblowing leads to a long-term improvement, then it makes sense why so many unhappy workers are happy to engage in this initial act of corporate martyrdom.
How Does the Law Protect Whistleblowers?
Despite the controversy, there are actually already many federal laws in place to defend whistleblowers from any legal recourse. Particularly with regards to health and safety, the likes of the Safe Water Drinking Act or the Clean Air Act have provisions which seek to save anyone looking to lift the lid on poor practices. More specific protection is also in place for workers within the US government itself, with legislation coming into effect in 1989 to defend those at a federal level.
Many free speech protections for whistleblowers, however, are mandated by individual states. On a wider basis, the Supreme Court has frequently cited the First Amendment as a reason for them not to be protected, and that it is the company’s responsibility to take further action after an employee has called out their behaviour. The Garcetti v. Ceballos case in 2006 serves as the most recent precedent for this decision, leaving whistleblowers at the mercy of the state and their employer.
Are Whistleblowers Doing the Right Thing?
In a word, yes. Exposing misconduct, harassment and abuse in the workplace can lead to termination in many cases, but if a staff member is willing to put their job on the line in the name of doing the right thing for themselves and their colleagues, they aren’t going make that decision lightly. Indeed, as Inc points out, whistleblowers “don’t start out wanting their grievances to be publicized; they want them to be fixed”.
So no matter the issue, and no matter the industry, stepping forward—if only to management at first—could have significant consequences. And, of course, if the higher-ups choose not to listen at that point, then as long as a whistleblower knows they have a legal and social support system to back them up, going public may be the only option to guarantee better things for their workplace.