Unpacking the Term “Whistleblower” 

January 24, 2023

The term whistleblower carries a lot of baggage – but you wouldn’t know this from its dictionary definition. 

The Merriam Webster dictionary defines a whistleblower as “one who reveals something covert or informs against another.” Specifically, it describes “an employee who brings wrongdoing by an employer or other employees to the attention of a government or law enforcement agency.”  

But whistleblowers, and whistleblowing by extension, have other problems more rooted in cultural perceptions. Despite the essential role whistleblowers play in exposing dangers and protecting organizations and the public from illegal or unethical behavior, they are often seen as creating problems where there were none. This has led to a common misconception of whistleblowers as troublemakers and informants who speak out in malicious, disruptive and unwelcome ways.  

If we take another look in online dictionaries, some of the top synonyms for whistleblower speak volumes: 

Spy. Traitor. Rat. 

Echoed in movies, books and series worldwide, we’re all familiar with the negative associations of these words. Across the media and identified in real life, however, “whistleblower” also tends to be loaded with stigma – or, at the very least, lives in a grey area weighted by how the media covers large-scale cases.  

From some perspectives, whistleblowers are heroes; in others, they are dissidents creating disruption and upsetting the status quo. Often, the presentation of whistleblowers as troublemakers can undermine the importance of raising concerns or the outcomes of their disclosures.  

Some of the high-profile whistleblowing cases in recent years illustrate this grey area the whistleblower inhabits.  

In the U.S., Edward Snowden, a former CIA employee and former NSA contractor, leaked classified information about the U.S. government’s mass surveillance programs in 2013. His actions have also been described as dangerous, irresponsible and a threat to national security, and his citizenship was revoked shortly after his disclosures. However, the revelations sparked a widespread public debate about government surveillance and privacy rights.  

In response, the U.S. Congress passed the USA Freedom Act in 2015, which limits the NSA’s ability to collect bulk data on citizens. The Pulitzer Prize board awarded medals for public service to The Washington Post and The Guardian for their articles on the documents provided by Snowden; several other countries have since adopted new privacy laws in response to the content released by Snowden. 

In the United Kingdom, media reports often refer to Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, as a whistleblower. Wikileaks revealed the extent of U.S. military involvement in Iraq, and in May 2019, the U.S. Department of Justice charged Assange with 17 violations of the Espionage Act. After repeated efforts to resist extradition, the U.K. home office approved this in June 2022, but this is again under appeal at the time of writing.  

Assange’s actions prompted significant debate about the Iraq war and its consequences, exposing evidence of corruption and human rights abuses in several countries, driving improvements to government policies and leading to greater scrutiny of government actions.  

In France, Antoine Deltour exposed tax evasion by multinational companies depriving governments of tax revenue. Deltour was convicted of theft, professional secrecy violation, and illegal computer system access in June 2016 and was initially sentenced to 12 months in prison and a €1,500 fine. However, Deltour’s actions forced the European Commission to investigate tax arrangements between Apple and the Irish Government. As a result of the findings, the European Court of Justice ruled that tax arrangements between governments and companies were illegal.   

Despite the surrounding controversies, there is something these cases have in common. All of these high-profile incidences of whistleblowing in broader society prompted conversations and actions leading to positive change – but they also had a significant impact on the perceptions of the people who blew the whistle. 

While not all examples of whistleblowers may be on this scale, one thing is clear: once earned, the label whistleblower is difficult – if not impossible – to shake off. Divisive cases like these often reinforce negative perceptions of who a whistleblower is, with the label taking over perception of their identity. 

But how does this apply to whistleblowing at work? Is there a difference? 

As mentioned earlier in this article, current dictionary definitions of whistleblower assume the person disclosing an issue will report or expose a problem to an external authority, regulator, or even the media. This tends to be the popular understanding of the term, as in the examples of Snowden, Deltour and Assange above, where the whistleblower’s name tends to be sensationalized as the cause of the uproar. Whistleblowing is not something generally seen as happening behind closed doors. 

In the workplace, this perception doesn’t fit the standard mold. 

For example, many organizations understand it is better in the long-term for whistleblowers to report internally. An internal investigation may resolve the issue without any external intervention, which is the ideal resolution. By the time a case has reached the point of being disclosed externally, the organization is likely already facing reputational or financial damage.  

The large-scale whistleblowing cases publicized worldwide and the vast range of sources and opinions in play leave a lot to think about. Consider:

  • Realistically, what could have prevented these scandals?  
  • Would it be more beneficial for society if no one had exposed the underlying issues? 
  • In articles you have read, have whistleblower actions and motives been scrutinized more than the activities exposed? 
  • Would the issues have become major global events if concerns had been raised earlier?  
  • Where does the responsibility lie for public outcry – with the failure to manage a series of more minor issues or the exposure of the more significant issue it becomes?  

Whistleblowing can be seen as a great example of prevention as the best cure. In other words, the best way to protect your organization from harm (or damage an external disclosure could cause) is to make certain issues can’t escalate. That does not mean making whistleblowing and whistleblower dirty words – it means having a real moral investment in taking whistleblowing seriously and having the tools to handle it effectively. 

By reframing and advocating whistleblowing as a positive act for an organization – often called speak-up programs or simply raising concerns – whistleblowing can be framed as a collective responsibility rather than the deviant behavior of an individual vs. the many. It makes it easier to discuss the action – “I just had to say something” – instead of trying to identify someone as needing to be “a whistleblower.” 

While this is an excellent step in diluting the negative associations of “whistleblower” and making whistleblowing less threatening, alternative terminology only addresses part of the problem. If organizations can’t provide or prove protections for those who speak up, their speak-up program will go nowhere. Examples of the label of “whistleblower” sticking and making life difficult for the reporter are still prevalent, despite evolving global regulations around whistleblower protections. To address this, organizations should ensure they have clear anti-retaliation policies; training should be frequent, easily accessible and transparent, and codes of conduct should be clear on behaviors the organization doesn’t tolerate. 

Nonetheless, while the term “whistleblower” still carries baggage, we shouldn’t retire calling it what it is just yet. Instead, organizations should focus on encouraging whistleblowing reports as a crucial part of effective risk management. Suppose everyone is encouraged to speak up about issues they see, and the outcomes are positively reinforced and celebrated. In that case, whistleblowing transforms into one of the most important ways for employees to keep each other and the organization safe. And, as organizations build more positive associations for whistleblowing and whistleblowers, they can transform perceptions of the whistleblower’s value – starting with the label being a role, not an identity. 

To learn more about how NAVEX can help your organization embrace a speak-up culture and effectively manage hotline reporting and incident management, take a look at our E&C solutions today. 

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