Whistle-Blowers Research Paper

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In a definition typical of those found in the research literature, Janet P. Near and Marcia P. Miceli in 1985 described whistle-blowers as organization employees, current or former, who report practices they consider unethical or illegal to someone with the power to take action. Although the public and many journalists may consider whistle-blowing to include only those cases in which the whistle-blower has alerted external audiences to the misconduct, for example, of someone in the media or in law enforcement, researchers in the field since the mid-1980s have tended to extend the definition to include both internal and external audiences. For example, an employee at a nuclear power plant might alert only a manager in a superior position in the authority hierarchy to a safety violation or concern. Researchers refer to this as “internal whistle-blowing.” Alternatively, the individual employee could go directly to a mass-media outlet or to law enforcement with their observations. This is termed “external whistle-blowing.” In the prototypical case, it has been found that employees with serious concerns tend to take them first to their superiors in the employing organization, and only when they find the senior managers to be inert or complicit in the perceived wrongdoing do they take the matter to external agencies that might be able to intercede (Glazer and Glazer 1989; Miethe and Rothschild 1994).

A Growing Phenomenon

In the late twentieth century and the early twenty-first century the extent of whistle-blowing grew greatly, with studies reporting substantial cases in Canada, Australia, South Africa, the United Kingdom, and Europe in addition to the United States, and worldwide attention paid to whistle-blowers in the mass media has been expanding. One analysis of previous research studies of whistle-blowing in the United States found that approximately 37 percent of employees observe in their workplaces some type of wrongdoing that troubles them (Miethe and Rothschild 1994). This rate, however, can vary considerably by occupational grouping. Among internal auditors, people who are trained to discover financial fraud and whose jobs require them to look for it, 82 percent say they have observed wrongdoing (Near and Miceli 1985). A large survey of federal employees found the rates of observing misconduct to range from 7 percent to 45 percent, depending upon the agency and the occupation involved (U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board 1993). The proportion of those who say they have observed serious misconduct in the workplace varies greatly by the opportunity for such observation in one’s occupation.

Of those who do say they have observed misconduct, most remain silent, although this too can vary considerably by country, occupation, and type of employer. Across six U.S. studies of employers, the average rate of silence among those who said they did observe serious misconduct in their places of work was 58 percent (Miethe and Rothschild 1994), while a later international review of the research literature shows that the rate of those who remain silent can vary from 25 percent to 91 percent (Maria 2006). These numbers imply that there is considerable room for growth in this whistle-blowing phenomenon if more individuals felt free to voice their concerns. Undeniably, interviews with these silent observers indicate two main reasons so many employees hold back from voicing their concerns at work: (1) they fear retribution from their employer, and (2) they suspect that their reportage would not effect organizational change in any case (Rothschild and Miethe 1999).

The Whistle-Blower’s Experience

Research findings quite clearly show that observers of misconduct do put themselves in jeopardy by reporting or disclosing the misconduct, whether they stay inside the organization or go outside the organization with their disclosures. Indeed, employer retaliation against whistle-blowers is the rule, not the exception, and some whistle-blowers are so devastated by the reprisals they suffer that they cannot reclaim their lives (De Maria 1999; Alford 2001). A nationwide study of whistle-blowers from all occupations and regions of the United States found that among those employees who stayed within their employing organization, reporting their observations and concerns only to those above them in the organizational hierarchy, the following occurred as a result of their disclosures:

69 percent were fired or forced to retire from their jobs,

64 percent saw their job performance evaluations decline abruptly,

68 percent had their work more closely monitored by supervisors,

64 percent felt they had been blacklisted from getting another job within their field.

For each of these items, the rate of retaliation was 10 to 15 percentage points higher for those who went outside of the employing organization with their concerns (Rothschild and Miethe 1999). In many cases, the reprisals that follow the reportage are experienced as traumatic. Some 84 percent said the experience gave rise to “severe depression or anxiety,” 78 percent said they learned from it “distrust of others,” 69 percent said they suffered a “decline in physical health,” 66 percent said they suffered “severe financial decline,” and 53 percent said the experience harmed their “family relations.” Many former whistle-blowers describe their experiences as giving rise to a political and personal transformation by which they now see themselves as exceedingly moral and their former employers (and in many cases, large organizations in general) as corrupt (Rothschild and Miethe 1999).

Statistical analysis of the data indicates that no special gender, age, educational attainment, years of employment, or method of reporting can insulate individuals from organizational retaliation should they choose to disclose the organizational misconduct. Validity of the claim also provides no insulation. Indeed, the data show that retaliation against whistle-blowers is most severe and certain when the observed wrongdoing is systemic and central to the way the organization conducts its business and accumulates its profit (Rothschild and Miethe 1999).

Federal And State Laws

Federal and state laws that would protect whistle-blowers from retaliation and that would thereby encourage the disclosure of organizational practices that injure the public are not comprehensive, and even where they do seem to be applicable, they are frequently not enforced (see Government Accountability Project 1996 for a review of these). It is not easy for the whistle-blower, generally unemployed, to mount a successful legal claim against a former employer with vastly greater legal resources. The Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 provides the most substantial legal protection for whistle-blowers, but it applies only to those who would disclose corporate misconduct that, if proven, would materially affect the valuation of a publicly traded company. The qui tam suits filed under the provisions of the False Claims Act have proven most effective at gaining large awards for whistle-blowers, but this act applies only to those employees whose employers were defrauding the federal government, again covering only a portion of the potential whistle-blowers.

As organizations grow larger in scope and more complex operationally, effective oversight from outside agencies becomes more difficult, and often the only people who are in a position to detect when the organization is defrauding or endangering the public are key employees themselves. The U.S. Congress has recognized the public’s interest in protecting whistle-blowers so abuses of the law or the public trust can come to light, and parliaments in other nations have recognized the same. But the extent of persistent retaliation against whistle-blowers and the extent of employees who choose to remain silent in the face of abuses at work suggests that more needs to be done.


  1. Alford, C. Fred. 2001. Whistleblowers: Broken Lives and Organizational Power. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
  2. De Maria, William. 1999. Deadly Disclosures: Whistleblowing and the Ethical Meltdown of Australia. Kent Town, Australia: Wakefield.
  3. Glazer, Myron Peretz, and Penina Migdal Glazer. 1989. The Whistleblowers: Exposing Corruption in Government and Industry. New York: Basic.
  4. Government Accountability Project. 1996. Courage without Martyrdom: The Whistleblower’s Survival Guide. Washington, DC: Author.
  5. Maria, William. 2006. Brother Secret, Sister Silence: Sibling Conspiracies against Managerial Integrity. Journal of Business Ethics 65 (3): 219–234.
  6. Miethe, Terance D., and Joyce Rothschild. 1994. Whistleblowing and the Control of Organizational Misconduct. Sociological Inquiry 64 (3): 322–347.
  7. Near, Janet P., and Marcia P. Miceli. 1985. Organizational Dissidence: The Case of Whistle-Blowing. Journal of Business Ethics 4 (1): 1–16.
  8. Rothschild, Joyce, and Terance D. Miethe. 1999. Whistle-Blower Disclosures and Management Retaliation: The Battle to Control Information about Organizational Corruption. Work and Occupations 26 (1): 107–128.
  9. S. Merit Systems Protection Board. 1993. Whistleblowing in the Federal Government: A Report to the President and the Congress of the United States. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

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