A recent column by a retired foreign service officer of the U.S. State Department raises the question of whether to “blow the whistle” when you see your organization doing wrong. His dilemma came about as a result of U.S. efforts to help rebuild war-torn Iraq, and his perception of ill-conceived efforts that did more harm than good. According to his account, he was forced to retire early, against his will.
A more recent example is former acting U.S. Attorney General Sally Yates, who issued a statement directing the Department of Justice not to enforce an Executive Order that, in her view, was legally indefensible. She was subsequently fired by the President for, in his words, “”refusing to enforce a legal order designed to protect the citizens of the United States. (Yates) has betrayed the Department of Justice,” the White House statement said.
Although both of these examples originated in the governmental sector, such decisions are not limited to public service. Cynthia Cooper, the person who called attention to the WorldCom scandal, is only one of many examples of whistle blowing in the private sector. Similar instances have occurred in the non-profit segment of the economy, as well.
By all accounts, the decision to blow the whistle on the organization that employs you is a tortuous, gut-wrenching process. Much has been written about the devastating effects on the whistle blower’s personal life and career options. Some people, like Roger Boisjoly, a rocket engineer at Morton Thiokol, who documented the problems associated with the decision to launch the space shuttle Challenger, which exploded soon after liftoff, never worked in the industry again.
Given the predictably onerous outcomes for the whistle blower, why would anyone voluntarily choose to speak out against his or her employer? If one is a utilitarian ethicist, the unhappiness resulting from blowing the whistle pretty clearly outweighs the happiness generated by the public revelation—certainly in the short run. Deontology, the duty to do “the right thing,” regardless of the potential consequences, or virtue ethics, the idea that one aspires to being a virtuous person over a lifetime, lend credence to a willingness to blow the whistle, despite the consequences.
Federal and state laws are designed to protect whistle blowers’ rights and to provide incentives for bringing wrongdoing to light. Some whistle blowers have been able to write books and establish public-speaking careers. But given the choices available to them, virtually all whistle blowers wish they could have gotten their organizations to make corrections in-house, rather than going public.
The Lesson for All of Us
The lesson for all of us? We should ask ourselves ahead of time, “What if…?” What if I discover my organization is doing something unethical? What if my firm will not correct the wrongs it is doing? What if it is up to me to bring the situation to light?
Ethical dilemmas in the workplace are predictable, in that we know they will happen at some point in our careers. Just as athletes visualize their performance and sales people practice their pitches, we should prepare ourselves to face the inevitable ethical conundrums we will face in our work. The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not imply endorsement by UNIBusiness or the University of Northern Iowa.