The trouble with whistleblowers

10 June 2015

“Whistle

As FIFA whistleblower Phaedra Almajid claims that Qatar will lose the 2022 World Cup, a leading business psychologist wonders whether whistleblowers are always driven by noble intentions

Professor Adrian Furnham

A whistleblower is an informer; an exposer of secrets. Their aims and their motives are complex and often contradictory. They can be motivated by ideology and idealism; revenge and spite; greed and jealousy.

Go online and you find many sites dedicated to whistleblowing. Two things are striking. The first is that whistleblowing is nearly always portrayed as an honourable activity. It is an act of the brave and morally just.

Second, many organisations try to direct potential whistleblowers to follow a set path through some tediously bureaucratic maze to (in effect) prevent or reduce the whistleblowing to the press. Again, whistleblowers are treated as perfectly legitimate, sensible and sensitive individuals.

“Furnham

The central question is the motives of the whistleblowers. This is much more important than to whom the information is leaked. There are two extreme types that appear in the press and the academic papers: Heroes and Villains.

The first type (H) is your prototypic ethical idol. These people see wrongdoing and do something about it. Unbowed by personal loss (of job), even danger (from a retributive employer), these heroes do what has to be done:

Justice has to be restored; the wicked punished.

But there is another story. This time the roles are reversed. The whistle-blower is villain (V). And the case histories of the V types are remarkably similar.

It goes like this: long-term employee WV (Whistleblowing Villain) feels alienated at work. Passed over for promotion, publicly sleighted, let down by unfulfilled promises, WV types feel increasingly angry about their plight.

WVs may be too old, too unskilled, too sour and too surly to get another job. So rather than leave, they decide to take their revenge. There are various options open to them: going absent, stirring strike activity, sabotage… or whistle-blowing.

In this scenario, whistleblowing could be seen as an act of cowardice, not heroism. The whistleblower may send anonymous messages to key media figures. The fact that such communications are often bitter, anonymous and lacking in facts means they are usually ignored.

Our friend WV is interested almost exclusively in revenge… even compensation. Some may obsessionally document every aspect of illegal, immoral, unethical behaviour they see. But they are the exceptions, not the rule. And when they eventually come to light, after doing immense damage to innocent people, they are hardly role models. They do not burn with integrity; they seem unable (or unwilling) to articulate their ethical code; and their personal history belies their claim to much status.

Do Villains outnumber Heroes? It’s really a question of the number of alienated, vengeful employees versus the number of seriously corrupt organisations. No doubt everyone has felt seriously unhappy at work at one time or another. And, equally, many organisations will break the rules, if they can, on things as varied as health and safety regulations or minute details of accountancy.

It is therefore equally unwise to laud or lament whistle-blowers. The two types described are mythical stereotypes at either end of the spectrum. Most whistleblowers have mixed and ambiguous motives. As do companies in trying to avoid their activities.

Adrian Furnham is a business psychologist and author of 80 books and 1,000 scientific papers. He is an adjunct professor at the Norwegian Business School. Find his website here.

For more on the role of whistleblowing in corporate culture change, go to page 23 of CMI’s recent report The MoralDNA of Performance.

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