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date: 18 February 2020

Whistleblowing and Whistleblowers

Summary and Keywords

Whistleblowing (also called good faith reporting, anonymous reporting, protected disclosure) is growing in importance as a corporate governance mechanism. It is increasingly recognized as a key internal control mechanism. Whistleblowing is a term used to describe an act whereby wrongdoing is exposed. It gained impetus following the collapse of Enron in 2001 arising from financial reporting fraud, which culminated in the U.S. Time magazine selecting three whistleblowers (all women) as its person of the year in 2002. The term was first used in 1966. Researchers have invoked a variety of theories and models attempting to explain whistleblowing. Elements that influence the process include the whistleblowers, the type of wrongdoing, the wrongdoers, the decision to blow the whistle, whistleblowing recipients, organizational factors, and finally the consequences of whistleblowing. Organizational processes, alternative to the more extreme step of whistleblowing, include silence (the other side of the coin to whistleblowing), speaking up, and open disclosure. An organizational response resisting an employee speaking up is the trigger that creates a whistleblower. The definition of whistleblowing only includes organizational members. Should it be extended to include external parties as well as organizational members? Social media has had an impact on whistleblowing. Questions remain as to the efficacy of whistleblowing: Is it a substantive or symbolic mechanism of governance?

Keywords: good faith reporting, anonymous reporting, protected disclosure, speaking up, open disclosure, wrongdoing, prosocial, employees

Whistleblowing (also called good faith reporting, anonymous reporting, protected disclosure) is a term used to describe an act whereby wrongdoing is exposed. Rothschild (2013) describes it as an act of parrhesia, derived from the Greek word meaning a citizen’s request to speak freely and frankly. Some authors (e.g., Rubenstein, 2007) believe the term “whistleblowing” originates from a time when English policemen (“bobbies”) blew a whistle on encountering a crime. Others (e.g., Gao & Brink, 2017) add the possibility that the term derives from sporting events when referees blow a whistle following a foul by a player. While first usage of the term “whistleblower” is most often attributed to the American public activist Ralph Nader, (Hartmann, 1971, as cited by Miceli & Near, 2013), I found an earlier usage of the term by Hackler (1966, pp. 28–29) as follows:

It is clear that someone must take the initiative in punishing the culprit—someone must blow the whistle. And the whistle is blown when it’s to someone’s advantage to do so . . . In our complex society groups are often enmeshed. It may be wiser for the individual working in the midst of this network not to blow the whistle.

It could be argued that whistleblowing dates to the Middle Ages, when qui tam (reward for civilians) legislation was introduced (Carson, Verdu, & Wokutch, 2008).

There is no agreed, widely accepted, definition of whistleblowing. All definitions concur that it involves the reporting of wrongdoing, which is not confined to illegality and is not confined to organizational reporting internally to fellow employees. Disagreement arises concerning the persons involved (whistleblower, wrongdoer, recipient), the circumstances of the disclosure, motives for disclosure, and whether disclosures are both internal and external or external only.

Near and Miceli’s (1985, p. 4) definition of whistleblowing is often used:

[The disclosure by organization members (former or current) of illegal, immoral or illegitimate practices under the control of their employers, to persons or organizations that may be able to effect action.

Rothschild (2013) argues that whistleblowing is defined by the response of the organization. If the organization corrects the wrongdoing, the individual will not be characterized as a whistleblower. However, if the organization resists and fails to correct the wrongdoing, possibly discrediting and retaliating against the person, then that person is forced by the organizational response into a situation whereby he/she is characterized as a whistleblower.

For Jubb (1999) , whistleblowing has six elements: act of disclosure, actor, disclosure subject, target, disclosure recipient, and outcome. Another related term, “speaking up,” involves sharing issues with people who have the perceived power to devote organizational attention or resources to the issues raised (Cunha, Simpson, Clegg, & Rego, 2019, p. 830; Detert & Burris, 2007, p. 870). Near and Miceli (2016) differentiate employee voice, which has the intention of improving operations or benefiting organizations, and whistleblowing, which concerns wrongdoing. Increasingly, organizations are trying to develop open cultures, encouraging staff to speak up, especially in the medical sector, with its “open disclosure” policies. Speaking up is quite different from whistle blowing. Premeaux and Bedeian (2003, p. 1538) define speaking up as “openly stating one’s views or opinions about workplace matters.” However, companies blur the lines between both (e.g., Nordic Investment Bank, 2016), with the possibility of negatively influencing speaking up by associating it with whistleblowing. Cunha et al. (2019) discuss the paradoxes and dilemmas of corporate speak-up systems.

Davis (1996) teases out the intricacies of the moral justification for whistleblowing. He summarizes the five conditions that make whistleblowing morally justified: (1) threat of harm, (2) report of threat of harm internally did not evoke a response, (3) other internal procedures have been exhausted, (4) the whistleblower’s evidence of threat of harm is convincing, and (5) whistleblowing will prevent the harm. Davis (1996) identifies three paradoxes: (i) whistleblowing is costly to the whistleblower (paradox of burden); (ii) harm extends beyond serious harm to include injustice, deception, and waste (paradox of missing harm); and (iii) whistleblowing does not prevent harm (the paradox of failure). Davis (1996) reconceptualizes whistleblowing away from the moral justification standard of preventing harm to avoidance of complicity in the wrongdoing, as whistleblowers are often deeply involved in the activity they reveal.

A process-oriented view of whistleblowing involves a four-step process and three parties to the process (Near & Miceli, 1985). The four steps include: (i) identification that the act is wrongful, (ii) decision to report, (iii) organizational response to ending the activity, and (iv) organizational response to the whistleblower. The three parties comprise: (i) the whistleblower—the observer who considers the act wrong and reports it, (ii) the wrongdoer—the person(s) who committed the (alleged) wrongdoing, and (iii) the recipient of the whistleblower’s report (Near & Miceli, 1996). Whistleblowing is increasingly seen as an important element in internal control systems in organizations (Patel, 2003). Appropriate managerial response to internal concerns of wrongdoing can avoid financial loss, reputational damage, and undue attention from regulators (Near & Miceli, 2016).

Common law protects the right of organizations to hold proprietary information and does not give employees a general right to disclose information about their employment. This common-law prohibition on the disclosure of information by employees is grounded in two principles: the duty of trust and the duty of fidelity. Disclosure of confidential information is normally the subject of express terms in employment contracts. The only common-law defense to disclosing confidential information is to prove that the information was disclosed in the public interest.

There are four legal mechanisms designed to promote reporting of wrongdoing: (i) anti-retaliation protection, (ii) duty to report, (iii) liability fines, and (iv) monetary incentives. Some jurisdictions such as the United States (Sarbanes–Oxley Act, 2002) and the United Kingdom (Public Interest Disclosure Act, 1999) have introduced legislation to protect employees who blow the whistle. In addition, under the Sarbanes–Oxley Act 2002, retaliation against employees is a criminal offense. Such employee-protection regulations have, however, proved to be largely ineffective (Dworkin, 2006; Miceli, Near, & Dworkin, 2008). Rothschild (2008, p. 894) calls the legislative framework protecting whistleblowers a “patchwork quilt” with meritorious whistleblowers falling between the cracks. In April 2018, the European Union (EU) proposed introducing a directive extending whistleblowing protection in the state and private sectors, across all EU countries (EU, 2018). Regulations requiring organizations to introduce whistleblowing procedures implicitly assume that well-designed internal structural processes will positively influence whistleblowing (Miceli et al., 2008). However, such employee-protection regulations have been found to be ineffective in motivating whistleblowing (e.g., Seifert, Sweeney, Joireman, & Thornton, 2010). Using vividness theory, Wainberg and Perreault (2015) offer a possible reason why adding anti-retaliation wording in a whistleblower policy causes employees to think retaliation is more likely with such wording. Norway is an exception. Skivenes and Trygstad (2010) find that the communication culture in Norwegian public-sector organizations explains why whistleblowing is effective in Norway in a way that it is not in other countries. Managers and employees in Norway expect to cooperate and mutually influence wrongdoing. Managers perceive a culture of communication and participation to have real benefits. Further, research has shown that while incentives for whistleblowing are generally weak, the costs to employees far outweigh the benefits when they speak out about wrongdoing in their organizations (Knoll & van Dick, 2013).

Factors contributing to decisions to blow the whistle (i.e., whistleblowing intentions) include the characteristics of the whistleblower, the wrongdoing, the wrongdoer, the organization, and the recipient of the report of wrongdoing. The challenge for researchers is accessing whistleblowing in the field. By its nature, it is a confidential secretive activity. Prior research adopts four broad approaches in researching whistleblowing: survey questionnaires about whistleblowing (e.g., Bergman, Langhout, Palmieri, Cortina, & Fitzgerald, 2002; Brewer & Selden, 1998; Caillier & Sa, 2017; Kaptein, 2011; Latan, Ringle, & Jabbour, 2018; Lee, Heilmann, & Near, 2004; Pillay, Ramphul, Dorasamy, & Meyer, 2018; Pillay, Reddy, & Morgan, 2017), whistleblowing scenarios (e.g., Brennan & Kelly, 2007; Patel, 2003), experiments (e.g., Arnold & Ponemon, 1991; Gao, Greenberg, & Wong-On-Wing, 2015; Miceli & Near, 1988), and sundry other approaches (e.g., legal cases—Dworkin & Baucus 1998; meta-analysis—Mesmer-Magnus & Viswesvaran, 2005). Sometimes students with little experience of the politics of the workplace are used as subjects in the research (e.g., Brody, Coulter, & Mihalek, 1998), which may provide unrealistic findings (Culiberg & Mihelič, 2017). While these approaches provide valuable insights, it is almost impossible to capture the intense dilemmas in which people find themselves using such research approaches. Survey-based research using vignettes or experiments cannot capture the challenges of whistleblowing in practice.

Theories Explaining Whistleblowing

What theories have been adopted to explain whistleblowing? To date, there is no comprehensive theory of whistleblowing (Zhang, Chiu, & Wei, 2009b). The topic is most often addressed in the accounting, ethics, and, to a certain extent, the human resources literature. A political perspective is more recent (e.g., Mansbach, 2009). Martin and Rifkin (2004) apply the concept of political jiu-jitsu (i.e., art/skill, from the Japanese) in their study of employee dissent. Whistleblowing is sometimes associated with the political phrase “speaking truth to power” (e.g., Mannion & Davies, 2015; Rothschild 2013). From an ethics’ perspective, Dozier and Miceli (1985) distinguish utilitarian theories (costs versus benefits), theories of rights (which benefit individuals), and justice theories (focus on distributional effects [i.e., who suffers the consequences] of actions/policies). Near, Dworkin, and Miceli (1993) introduce two theoretical frameworks: justice theory and power relations. This section discusses a range of theories invoked in whistleblowing studies, culminating in studies that include models of whistleblowing.

Prosocial Behavior

Brief and Motowidlo (1986, p. 711) define prosocial behavior as: “behavior which is (a) performed by a member of an organization, (b) directed toward an individual, group, or organization with whom he or she interacts while carrying out his or her organizational role, and (c) performed with the intention of promoting the welfare of the individual, group, or organization toward which it is directed.” Dozier and Miceli (1985) characterize whistleblowing as a prosocial behavior, motivated by both selfish (egoism) and unselfish (altruistic) motives. Thus, while whistleblowing may benefit the whistleblower, it is prosocial in the sense that it will also benefit other people/organizations. Consistent with prosocial theory, people who feel positively about their jobs are more likely to blow the whistle (Miceli & Near, 1988), although Sims and Keenen (1998) find no such association. Brewer and Selden (1998) extend prosocial theory to public service motivation theory, examining whistleblowing by civil servants.

Justice Theory

Perceptions of injustice motivate people to report wrongdoing. Research has found a positive relation between prosocial behavior and dimensions of organizational justice. Near et al. (1993) consider justice theory to be suitable for explaining whistleblowing. They distinguish between procedural and distributive justice. Procedural justice predicts the level of whistleblowers’ satisfaction with the system, while distributive justice relates to whistleblowers’ satisfaction with the outcome of the process. Victor, Trevino, and Shapiro (1993) add retributive justice, which relates to the outcome in terms of punishment. They predict that those satisfied with fair administration of organizational whistleblowing systems, and the fairness of the outcomes of the whistleblowing complaint, are more likely to blow the whistle. Satisfaction with outcomes is likely to be influenced by fixing the wrongdoing, without retaliation against the whistleblower. Vandekerckhove and Tsahuridu (2010) distinguish justice versus benevolence perspectives. Justice relates to rights and duties of whistleblowers while benevolence relates to duties to protect society from harm. In an experimental setting involving professional accountants, Seifert et al. (2010) manipulated three dimensions of organization justice at two levels (high/low): procedural, interactional, and distributive justice. Interactional justice reflects the fairness with which whistleblowers are treated by their superiors/management. They concluded that management may implement whistleblowing procedures to mitigate corporate liability for wronging but may not be supportive of whistleblowing in practice.

Theories of Power Relations

Power relations influence whistleblowing and its outcomes. Elliston (1982) characterizes whistleblowing as a power play. The imbalance of power relations between whistleblower (powerless) and the subject of accusation constrains whistleblowing. Near et al. (1993) take an opposite perspective using power relations’ theories to view whistleblowers as attempting to exert power over organizations or their members to persuade the dominant coalition to terminate the wrongdoing by organizational members. Using predictions from theories of power in organizations, Mesmer-Magnus and Viswesvaran (2005) expect employees with greater tenure to have greater power to effect change, and therefore be more likely to favor voice to exit or silence. Andrade (2015) discusses the asymmetric power between organizations and their employees, and between organizations and their stakeholders. Teo and Caspersz (2011) study dissenting discourse in a financial services organization, using a Foucaultian (Foucault, 1980) power-relations’ lens. Dissenting discourse may provide a space for employees in which whistleblowing/silence can be negotiated and resisted.

Theory of Planned Behavior

Ajzen’s (1991) theory of planned behavior is used to examine the relationship between intention and behavior. Behavioral intention is considered a good predictor of actual behavior. Three factors influence intention: attitude, beliefs, and perceived behavioral control (Pillay et al., 2018). Chiu (2003) uses Ajzen’s theory to study influences on Chinese managers’/professionals’ decisions to blow the whistle, in terms of their locus of control (i.e., people’s perceptions of their control over the outcome) and subjective judgment of their intention to blow the whistle. Using Ajzen’s theory to predict whistleblowing, Park, Rehg, and Lee (2005) similarly consider intention to blow the whistle to be determined by the interaction of the three factors. Employees with a positive attitude toward whistleblowing will be more willing to report wrongdoing, especially where they believe there is organizational support. Retaliation, a form of perceived behavioral control, might discourage employees from reporting the wrongdoing. In their study of Korean police, Park and Blenkinsopp (2009) contrast Ajzen’s (1991) (Western) theory of planned behavior with (Eastern) Confucian ethics to examine the linkages among attitude, intention, and behavior. Pillay et al. (2018) apply Ajzen’s theory to consider the barriers that shape employee intentions, including morality and ethics, culture, retaliation, and confidence in systems.

Other Theories

Young (2017) invokes the elaboration likelihood model to examine the effect of persuasive communication/argument frames on mitigating employees’ reluctance to blow the whistle for fear of retaliation. The elaboration likelihood model predicts that attitudes toward an attitude object (whistleblowing in this case) are developed and modified as individuals acquire and process relevant information about the attitude object.

Reckers-Sauciuc and Lowe (2010) identify the three components of untoward conduct under the toxic triangle model: destructive leaders, susceptible followers, and a conducive environment, finding strong support for their model in an experiment with MBA students. Davis (1996) applies complicity theory to understand whistleblowing. Whistleblowers may be deeply involved in the wrongdoing, such that if they do not take steps to stop the wrongdoing they are complicit in it. Whistleblowers are motivated not just to prevent harm, but to fix the wrongdoing in which they feel somehow engaged. Stikeleather (2016) uses gift exchange theory to evaluate the cost–benefit tradeoffs facing employers offering rewards for internal whistleblowing. Kenny (2018) is critical of prior research which she claims dehumanizes whistleblowers. She applies the American philosopher Judith Butler’s theories of recognition and censorship to produce more nuanced insights into the exclusion of whistleblowers for engaging in “impossible speech.” Stolowy, Gendron, Moll, and Paugam (2019) are also concerned with the legitimacy of whistleblower speech and analyze seven whistleblower self-narratives which they classify into four patterns. Kenny (2019) proposes a new perspective on whistleblowing as a collective process rather than focusing on an individual whistleblower. She considers the complicity of a wider group of people in the exclusion and vilification of whistleblowers.

Models of Whistleblowing

Some authors have suggested models of whistleblowing, often in the form of a diagram. In the context of reporting fraud, Ponemon (1994) applies Rest’s (1986) four-component model of moral action (sensitivity, reasoning, value assignment, perseverance) to generate a three-component model of whistleblowing decision-making (sensitivity, competency, and perseverance). Near and Miceli’s (1985) widely adopted four-step process model of whistleblowing was described at the start of this article. Near and Miceli (1995, figure 1, p. 682) propose a model of effective whistleblowing, comprising the variables that influence the outcome of whistleblowing. In an effective diagram, Gao and Brink (2017, figure 1, p. 2) develop a model of whistleblowing determinants from Near and Miceli (1985) . Chiu (2003) develops a model of whistleblowing incorporating Chinese culture, which emphasizes the potential whistleblower’s locus of control (i.e., control over the outcome). Consistent with Rest’s four-component model, Zhang et al. (2009b) argue that the decision process occurs in a fixed sequence of four stages—moral perception, judgment, intention, and behavior. Zhang et al. (2009b) add individual and contextual factors, introducing a three-way interactionist model of the whistleblowing decision-making process, based on whistleblowing judgment and whistleblowing intention, with individual and organizational characteristics as moderators. In their model, whistleblowing judgment influences whistleblowing intention, which relation is moderated by the characteristics of the person (mood in this case) and organizational ethical culture. Gundlach, Douglas, and Martinko (2003, figure 1, p. 110) develop a social information processing model of whistleblowing, combining the prosocial, power, and justice literature with attribution and emotion. Their model incorporates individuals’ attribution and responsibility judgments, individuals’ cost–benefit analyses, and the impact of these factors on emotions. Gundlach et al. (2003) also demonstrate that whistleblowers can use impression management tactics (e.g., excuses, justifications, intimidation, and apologies) to manipulate their causal attributions for the wrongdoing. Kiel and Park (2010, figure 1, p. 2307) adapt Latané and Darley’s (1970) bystander intervention model (which they call a basic whistleblowing model) to apply to delivering bad news during the development of a troubled IT project. Customized to an external audit context, Alleyne, Hudaib, and Pike’s (2013, figure 1, p. 15) model captures unique features of external auditing such as organizational support, moral intensity, and team-based factors. Based on the well-known fraud triangle, Smaili and Arroyo (2019, figure 2) develop a whistleblowing triangle, which Latan, Jabbour, and de Sousa Jabbour (2018, figure 1) extend. Watts and Buckley (2017, figure 1, p. 674) construct a dual processing model of moral whistleblowing, contrasting their model with traditional rational models, such as Near and Miceli’s (1985) four-step model. Lee and Xiao (2018, figure 1, p. 33) develop a model based on Miceli and Near’s (1992) whistleblowing process model. Lewis and Vandekerckhove’s (2018, figure 1) three-tiered whistleblowing model is unusual in that it includes extra-organizational elements such as regulators and the public. Criticizing other models for their complexity and failure to capture all features of whistleblowing, Culiberg and Mihelič (2017) devise a conceptual framework of whistleblowing, which they call the “wheel of whistleblowing.” Focusing only on individual whistleblowers, they build their wheel based on five Ws: Who, What, hoW, Why, and to Whom.


Who are whistleblowers and what motivates them to decide to blow the whistle? Whistleblowers have attracted a range of positive and (more commonly) negative labels such as “dissenters” (Teo & Caspersz, 2011), “snitch or savior” (Campbell, 2013), “saints of secular culture” (Grant, 2002), and “leakers” (Rios & Ingraffia, 2016). Time magazine’s selection of three whistleblowers (all women) as its person of the year 2002 (following the Enron scandal in 2001) was an unusually positive portrayal of whistleblowers which attracted a lot of attention (Lacayo & Ripley, 2002). Near and Miceli’s (1985) definition of whistleblowing reproduced earlier in this article limits whistleblowers to employees (“organizational members”). Near and Miceli (2016) explain that they do not include outsiders in their definition because outsiders cannot be subject to organizational responses such as retaliation and due to employees’ access to proprietary information. This assumption is questionable—for example, following the treatment of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford and her sexual assault allegations during the Brett Kavanaugh hearings in late 2018, culminating in his appointment as a U.S. Supreme Court judge (Brown & Battle, 2019). Research on whistleblowers has included employees generally (e.g., Kaptein, 2011; Park et al., 2005; Zhang, Chiu, & Wei, 2009a; Zhang et al., 2009b) and specific professionals such as internal auditors (e.g., Arnold & Ponemon, 1991; Miceli & Near, 1994; Xu & Ziegenfuss, 2008) and healthcare workers (e.g., Jackson et al., 2010). However, external auditors (outsiders, with a great deal of insider access) have also been the focus of attention (e.g., Alleyne et al., 2013; Brennan & Kelly, 2007; Latan, Jabbour, et al., 2018; Latan, Ringle et al., 2018). Researchers also differentiate between the private sector and the public sector (e.g., Brewer & Selden, 1998; Caillier & Sa, 2017; Miceli & Near, 2002; Park et al., 2005), and the not-for-profit sector (Rothschild, 2013).

With the advent of the Internet, and potentially large rewards for whistleblowing in countries such as the United States, the narrow focus on employees as whistleblowers may need to be expanded. Miceli, Dreyfus, and Near (2014) (as reported in Culiberg & Mihelič, 2017) use the term “bellringers” for external whistleblowers. Rothschild (2008) expects whistleblowing to increase, notwithstanding severe retaliation against whistleblowers. She attributes her expectations of an increase to changes in society such as better-educated employees, increased number of employees with professional qualifications and therefore subject to codes of professional ethics, the information economy—more information available from information technology—and changing employee relationships with employers arising from reduced confidence that employers will take care of employees.

Personal Characteristics of Whistleblowers

Researchers are interested in the characteristics of whistleblowers including their personality, moral development, loyalty to their organizations, their role and position. Personality characteristics include people with principles and strong moral convictions (Rothschild & Miethe, 1999a). Rothschild and Miethe (1999a) conclude that sociodemographic characteristics contribute little in explaining the propensity to blow the whistle. Brink, Lowe, and Victoravich (2017) find that people’s attitude toward money (operationalized as anxiety, distrust, and power) influences reporting intentions. Curtis and Taylor (2009) examine whistleblowing intentions by reference to ethical style (whether individuals are caring or judgmental) when considering ethical dilemmas, with prior research suggesting more judgmental styles to be more likely to blow the whistle. They find ethical style to be only marginally significant.

Tang and Chen (2008) and Dalton and Radtke (2013) examine the influence of Machiavellianism on whistleblowing, a personal characteristic relating to the propensity to act like the 16th-century Italian diplomat and politician, Machiavelli, author of The Prince (Murphy, 2012). Tang and Chen (2008) find Machiavellianism to be a mediator of the relationship between love of money and unethical behavior. Dalton and Radtke (2013) find, as expected, that “High Machs” are less likely to report wrongdoing.

Demographic Characteristics of Whistleblowers

Demographic characteristics of whistleblowers have also been of interest, including gender, age, marital status, race, education level, religious preference, and work experience (tenure and seniority). Most studies find that men are more likely to blow the whistle than women (Miceli & Near, 1984, 1988; Miceli, Near, & Schwenk, 1991; Rothschild & Miethe, 1999b; Sims & Keenan, 1998), with only a few studies finding the opposite (Dworkin & Baucus, 1998; Fritzsche, 1988; Mesmer-Magnus & Viswesvaran, 2005; Rothschild & Miethe, 1999b). Sims and Keenan (1998) do not find age, organizational tenure, or education to be significant predictors of whistleblowing. Miceli and Near (1988) find race to be unrelated to whistleblowing. Barnett, Bass, and Brown (1996) examine religiosity—the strength of subjects’ religious beliefs—and whistleblowing, finding religiosity relevant to the decision to report on peers. Chiu (2003) does not find religion to be related to whistleblowing intention. Whistleblowing by those holding professional and more senior positions is more likely (Miceli & Near, 1988).

Motives of Whistleblowers

What motivates whistleblowers? Whistleblowing is a discretionary act. What motivates people to blow the whistle is not fully understood. At its highest level of motivation, whistleblowing is intended to create change by stopping the wrongdoing (Rothschild, 2013). Whistleblowers tend to be better performers in their jobs and more committed to their organizations’ objectives (Rothschild, 2008). Some authors also include the concept of loyalty in the process. Rothschild and Miethe (1999b) conclude that whistleblowers in their sample tended to be extremely loyal to their organization and were worried the misconduct would undermine the organization’s purpose. However, researchers also accept that whistleblowing may be motivated for selfish and egoistical reasons, rather than unselfish (altruistic) motives. The more serious the wrongdoing, the more likely a reporter is motivated by self-interest, in that reporting would be career enhancing. I consider the influence of monetary incentives/rewards later in the section “Reward for the Whistleblower.”

Dozier and Miceli (1985) characterize whistleblowing as a form of prosocial behavior, that is, a positive social behavior motivated by the intention to benefit others. Miceli et al.’s (1991) findings support prosocial behavior theory: people are less likely to act in the absence of moral compulsion or where reporting is not role-prescribed. Whistleblowing is described as a form of voice (Michalak, Kiffin-Petersen, & Ashkanasy, 2019) that is considered pro-organizational on condition it is reported internally.

Type of Wrongdoing

What type of wrongdoing do people blow the whistle about? Research on whistleblowing can involve a range of wrongdoing (Miethe, 2019). Near, Rehg, Van Scotter, and Miceli (2004) classify wrongdoing into seven categories: stealing, waste, mismanagement, safety problems, sexual harassment, unfair discrimination, and other wrongdoing. They find type of wrongdoing to affect the incidence of whistleblowing, with legal violations, mismanagement, and sexual harassment more likely to lead to whistleblowing than fraud and other wrongdoings. In their study of one type of wrongdoing, sexual harassment, Lee et al. (2004) conclude that the whistleblowing pattern they find in reporting sexual harassment has a lot in common with other types of wrongdoing.

While some whistleblowing research is in a healthcare setting (see Mannion & Davies, 2015 for an overview; and Carson et al., 2008), or deals with sexual harassment (e.g., Bergman et al., 2002; Lee at al., 2004; Miceli & Near, 2002), research on whistleblowing is dominated by a focus on fraud (e.g., Brink, Lowe, & Victoravich, 2013; Dyck, Morse, & Zingales, 2010; Guthrie & Taylor, 2017; Kaplan, Pany, Samuels, & Zhang, 2009). While whistleblowing was gaining traction in the 1980s and 1990s, the Enron financial reporting fraud in 2001 gave it impetus. The Securities and Exchange Commission’s (SEC) four most common types of whistleblower allegations are on corporate disclosure and financial fraud, securities offering fraud, market manipulation, and insider trading (Brink et al., 2017). Much of the focus of prior research is on whistleblowing and financial reporting fraud. Brink et al. (2017) examine the effect on whistleblowing of wrongdoing type, based on two securities law violations—fraudulent financial reporting and insider trading. They find their research participants feel a greater responsibility to report insider trading fraud.


What type of wrongdoers do people blow the whistle on? Gao et al. (2015) find the likelihood of whistleblowing is lower the higher the wrongdoer’s power status, which they operationalize as supervisor versus entry-level employee. Research has found the higher the wrongdoer’s status, the more severe will be the retaliation (e.g., Lee et al., 2004; Rehg, Miceli, Near, & Van Scotter, 2008). Wrongdoers’ power status may also influence the perceived seriousness of the wrongdoing.

The Decision to Blow the Whistle

What triggers the decision to blow the whistle? Research has found that employees do not report wrongdoing if they believe their report will have no effect on the wrongdoing, if they fear breach of confidentiality, or if they expect there will be retaliation against them. Gundlach et al. (2003) suggest a model to explain the decision to blow the whistle. Rothschild (2013) concludes that the strongest determinant of whether employees will choose to blow the whistle is employee perceptions of participatory, democratic, and moral aspects of their employing organization. In an experimental setting, Brink, Cereola, and Menk (2015) find materiality of the wrongdoing to be a key predictor of whistleblowing likelihood. Rothschild (2013) refers to Hirschman’s (1970) exit versus voice hypothesis, and its interplay with loyalty, when conjecturing that non-profit organizations need to give voice and openness to volunteers’ opinions if they wish to retain their services.

Remaining Silent

The other side of the coin to whistleblowing is silence, described as the whistleblowing–silence dichotomy (Teo & Caspersz, 2011), speaking up–remaining silent dichotomy, and voice–silence dichotomy (Morrison & Milliken, 2003). Morrison and Milliken (2000) , Milliken and Morrison (2003) , and Milliken, Morrison, and Hewlin (2003) examine silence by internal organizational stakeholders, the meaning of which is difficult to interpret, as it results from various underlying motives. Research shows that silence is the default position for employees with concerns about wrongdoing (Knoll & van Dick, 2013). De Maria (2006) characterizes managerial secrecy and organizational silence as a duo, resulting in co-production of secrecy and silence and in incapacitating ethical resistance.

Deciding to Blow the Whistle

Employees have five response choices to observed wrongdoing: inaction (i.e., silence), confronting the wrongdoer(s), reporting to management, calling an internal hotline, and external whistleblowing (Kaptein, 2011). What triggers whistleblowers to call a hotline? In an experiment with MBA students, Reckers-Sauciuc and Lowe (2010) find dispositional affect (affective states of sadness/demoralization, fear, arousal, and contentedness/happiness) influences subjects’ propensity to blow the whistle.

The Reporting Channel

Through what channels do whistleblowers report wrongdoing? Research differentiates anonymous and non-anonymous reporting channels and internal and external hotline reporting channels. Research evidence favors anonymous reporting channels (Kaplan et al., 2009). Most whistleblowers prefer (Kaplan et al., 2009; Kaptein, 2011) and initially use internal reporting channels (Miceli et al., 2008). Reporting externally is relatively rare. Dworkin and Baucus (1998) compare whistleblowers who used external versus internal reporting channels. They find external whistleblowers to have been with their organizations for a shorter time, their evidence of wrongdoing is stronger, and their reporting of whistleblowing using external channels is more likely to lead to organizational change. In an experiment, Zhang, Pany, and Reckers (2013) find externally administered hotlines to obtain higher whistleblowing intentions. Research shows that employees who report internally without an appropriate response to their concerns are more likely to then report externally (Miceli & Near, 1988). Rothschild (2008) attributes whistleblower success in bringing about change to two external factors: (i) they gain mass media coverage; and (ii) they mobilize regulatory authorities to investigate the wrongdoing, suggesting external reporting channels are more effective. The composition of audit committees who establish hotlines also influences the propensity to blow the whistle (Lee & Fargher, 2013). Strong audit committees might result in greater likelihood of reporting wrongdoing because the whistleblower might expect the wrongdoing to be stopped. Nayır, Rehg, and Asa (2018) compare preferred reporting channels (internal versus external) for Turkish private and public sector employees. Public sector employees are less likely to blow the whistle externally.

Whistleblowing Recipients

To whom do whistleblowers report the wrongdoing? Near et al. (1993) identify four classes of (complaint) recipient: the wrongdoer, the organization employing the wrongdoer, employees affected by the whistleblower’s actions, and a mediator. Near and Miceli (1995) highlight two characteristics of complaint recipients: credibility and power. Showing how views have matured, Near and Miceli (2016) identify report recipients as including managers, HR staff, auditors, inspectors, or anonymous/external hotlines. Because the job of internal auditors is to find wrongdoing, they have been the focus of research as report recipients (Arnold & Ponemon, 1991; Miceli & Near 1994). Munro (2017) examines WikiLeaks as the recipient of whistleblowing information, characterizing such disclosures as political truth games in the creation of practices of resistance in organizations.

Organizational Factors

A variety of organizational factors have been researched, including supervisor support (Sims & Keenan, 1998), organizational structures (Brennan & Kelly, 2007; King, 1999), organizational ethical environment (Dalton & Radtke, 2013), organizational justice (Seifert et al., 2010), organizational whistleblowing policies (Barnett, Cochran, & Taylor, 1993; Hassink, De Vries, & Bollen, 2007; Near & Dworkin, 1998; Tsahuridu & Vandekerckhove, 2008; Vandekerckhove & Lewis, 2012), and protection from retaliation (Wainberg & Perreault, 2015). Some organizations offer internal monetary rewards which are discussed in the “Retaliation against Whistleblowers” section in relation to rewards for whistleblowers.

Country Culture

Does the country in which the organization is located influence whistleblowing? Most whistleblowing studies are based on single countries, dominated by the United States, with other studies on China (Zhang et al., 2009a, 2009b). In an early study, and using a Hofstede (1980) lens, Brody et al. (1998) find significant differences in ethical perceptions between U.S. and Japanese students, especially on Hofstede’s (1980) cultural dimension of individualism. Using an experiment involving six cases, Schultz, Johnson, Morris, and Dyrnes (1993) study managerial and professional staff in the United States, Norway, and France. U.S. subjects perceived higher personal costs to blowing the whistle than French or Norwegian subjects. Based on survey questionnaire responses from a sample of Big-N Australian, Indian, and Malaysian-Chinese accountants, Patel (2003) finds that the professional judgments concerning whistleblowing as an internal control mechanism to result in greater likelihood to engage in whistleblowing by Australian accountants than Indian and Malaysian-Chinese accountants. Tavakoli, Keenan, and Cranjak-Karanovic (2003) apply Hofstede’s (1997) cultural dimensions to understand the differences in reported whistleblowing in Croatia and the United States. They compare survey responses of Croatian and U.S. managers on various aspects of whistleblowing, finding that U.S. managers are more comfortable speaking out about wrongdoing than their Croatian counterparts. In a survey of university students from South Korea, Turkey, and the United Kingdom, Park, Blenkinsopp, Oktem, and Omurgonulsen (2008) compare nationality, cultural orientation, and attitudes toward blowing the whistle. Given the influence of nationality and cultural orientation, they advocate tailoring organizational policies and procedures to accommodate these differences. Miceli and Near (2013) compare Australian, Norwegian, and U.S. large-scale studies of public sector employees. They find somewhat higher levels of whistleblowing and lower levels of retaliation in Norway, concluding that country culture and legislative protection for whistleblowing may affect whistleblowing and its consequences.

Organizational Culture

Berry (2004) identifies seven dimensions of organizational culture that influence employees’ propensity to blow the whistle: (1) vigilance, (2) engagement, (3) credibility, (4) accountability, (5) empowerment, (6) courage, and (7) options. Kaptein (2011) assesses eight dimensions of a corporate ethical-virtues model and five employee responses: inaction, confrontation, reporting to management, calling an ethics helpline, and external whistleblowing. Highlighting the impact of ethical culture, he finds four of the eight ethical dimensions to be positively related to the three internal actions, while four of the eight ethical dimensions are negatively related to inaction and external whistleblowing.

Symbolic Versus Substantive

Whistleblowing involves contradictions and paradoxes. Management puts in place whistleblowing policies. Senior management, often the CEO, urges staff to use the policy. Yet the evidence is overwhelming that when employees so do, management’s response is severe, intense, and unfair. The empty symbolism and ceremonial nature of whistleblowing policies leading to their ineffectiveness deserves greater acknowledgement. For example, the whistleblowing policy of Royal Sun Alliance (RSA) Ireland stated:

The objective of this policy is to encourage and enable employees to raise serious concerns within RSA rather than overlooking or “blowing the whistle” outside. To provide avenues for employees to raise concerns in confidence.

(FRC, 2017, p. 8)

Additionally, the whistleblowing policy was emailed to all RSA staff. In an email in 2013, attaching the policy, the CEO explained:

Employees are frequently the first individuals to recognise malpractice . . . However there is often a reluctance to voice suspicions for a range of understandable if possibly misguided reasons, including fear of disloyalty to colleagues or employer and/or fear of harassment or victimisation arising out of any disclosure.

The aim of the Whistleblowing Policy is to address this reluctance and to encourage you to advise us of any malpractice or wrongdoing within RSA of which you become aware.

We believe you should feel able to report any incidents of malpractice or wrongdoing without fear of recrimination, provided any such reports are based on genuine concerns and made without malice or bad faith. This Policy is intended to enable you to raise serious concerns, offering such safeguards and support as may be necessary to protect your personal integrity and, where possible, identity.

Please take the time to read the Whistleblowing Policy . . . (FRC, 2017, p. 9)

However, all this was ceremonial. Following the departure of the CEO and questions over his aggressive dominant management style, the parent company had to inject €200 million consequent on inadequate large loss claims reserving. Senior actuary, Mr. Gerard Bradley, continually raised his concerns at senior management team meetings. When his concerns were not listened to, he left RSA. The U.K. Financial Reporting Council (FRC) fined him £50,000 for not blowing the whistle to the regulator, as required under his professional body’s Code of Conduct (FRC, 2017). This case highlights that the option not to blow the whistle may not be available to professionals who are subject to codes of conduct of their professional bodies.

Consequences of Whistleblowing

What are the consequences of whistleblowing on the wrongdoing and for the whistleblower (positive and negative)?

Effect of Whistleblowing on Wrongdoing

Near and Miceli (1995) observe that there is no point in organizations encouraging whistleblowing unless it is effective. They identify the credibility and power of whistleblowers, wrongdoers, and complaint recipients as influencing the outcome of whistleblowing. The organization’s willingness to change will also influence the termination of the wrongdoing. Bowen, Call, and Rajgopal (2010) document the negative consequences for target firms subject to whistleblowing allegations. They find that where whistleblowing allegations are reported by the media it leads to improvements in corporate governance. Wilde (2017) provides evidence that firms subject to whistleblowing allegations exhibit significant decreases in financial misreporting and tax aggressiveness compared with control firms.

Reward for the Whistleblower

The United States has gone one step further compared with other jurisdictions in offering a share of the revenues accruing to the state following whistleblowing. Qui tam legislation enlists the public in the recovery of civil penalties and forfeitures and rewards them with a portion of the recovered proceeds. Doyle (2009) reports the first such legislation going back to the time of King Wihtred of Kent in 695, observing that qui tam lives on in the U.S. False Claims Act, introduced in 1863. The SEC program was created following the Dodd–Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Financial Protection Act of 2010. Whistleblowers receive 10 to 30% of monetary sanctions recovered exceeding $1 million. Following a $83 million payout to three whistleblowers in March 2018, the SEC has proposed to cap rewards at a maximum of $30 million (SEC, 2018). Previously, the largest SEC award was $30m in 2014, the second highest was $22m in August 2016 (SEC, 2017, p. 10). Vega (2012) is critical of this approach, for its failure to promote the common good in the community, observing that a rich rat is still a rat. Carson et al. (2008) consider such legislation and the impact of incentives through a moral lens, as well as through a cost–benefit perspective, considering the morally corrupting effect of incentives on whistleblowers, which they dismiss.

Some organizations offer internal monetary rewards. Internal incentives (e.g., Stikeleather, 2016) and the composition of internal incentives (e.g., Rose, Brink, & Norman, 2018) generally positively influence whistleblowing. Stikeleather (2016) evaluates the costs and benefits of offering incentives and finds them favorable for low wage workers but not for workers paid fairly or above market rates. Brink et al. (2013) finds a positive relation between internal incentives and whistleblowing, especially when the evidence of wrongdoing is strong. In an experimental setting, Guthrie and Taylor (2017) find internal organizational monetary rewards will work only where retaliation threats are low. Also in an experimental setting, Andon, Free, Jidin, Monroe, and Turner (2018) find financial incentives motivate professional accountants to blow the whistle, which incentives are heightened by the seriousness of the wrongdoing.

Retaliation Against Whistleblowers

Rothschild (2013) concludes that retaliation on whistleblowers is severe and common, even more so for external versus internal whistleblowers. She identifies five types of retaliation: job loss, negative work evaluations, greater monitoring by superiors, criticism/shunning by co-workers, and blacklisting from other positions in the sector. In addition, Rothschild (2013) identifies less tangible, but arguably more personally costly, consequences in terms of severe depression, feelings of distrust, declining physical health, financial costs, and problems with family relationships. Contrary to the intention of management, Rothschild (2008) highlights that retaliation confirms to whistleblowers the questionable morals and lack of integrity of their superiors. Retaliation may be so intense that, instead of suppressing the information, it may prompt whistleblowers to reach out to external channels with the information.

Mesmer-Magnus and Viswesvaran (2005) conduct a meta-analysis of the prior research. They find women are more likely to blow the whistle and are more likely to suffer greater retaliation when they do (Rehg et al., 2008). Rather than discouraging retaliation, Miceli, Near, and Dworkin (2009) conjecture that this may have the opposite effect of encouraging whistleblowing to the media and other external parties. Miceli and Near (1994) examine the consequences of highlighting wrongdoing (i.e., doing their job) for internal auditors, finding evidence of retaliation that they explain by reference to a power perspective. Retaliation is more likely the higher the status of the whistleblower (e.g., Lee et al., 2004; Rehg et al., 2008). Co-workers rarely support whistleblowers publicly, although they may do so privately (McGlynn & Richardson, 2014).

Research Directions

Notwithstanding the extent of prior research on whistleblowing, many questions remain unanswered. Given the industry generated by regulatory requirements for listed companies to establish whistleblowing policies, procedures, and processes, a key question is: Is whistleblowing a symbolic or substantive corporate governance mechanism? This more critical perspective, which has been applied in judging the effectiveness of other corporate governance mechanisms, does not feature to any great extent in the whistleblowing literature. For example, what claims to integrity and high standards have organizations that have subsequently been subject to whistleblowing accusations made? Amernic and Craig (2013) examine the contradictions in the ethical linguistic signs in Rupert Murdoch’s CEO letter to shareholders written at the same time News Corporation was engaged in the phone hacking scandal in the United Kingdom, including hacking the mobile phone of murdered 13-year-old Milly Dowler. Sikka (2010) compares company corporate social responsibility claims and the taxation they pay. Linkages between ethical standards claimed in organizations and their attitudes toward employees warrant comparison with whistleblowing and treatment of whistleblowers in those organizations.

Related to the effectiveness of whistleblowing are the interaction effects: How does whistleblowing interact with, and how is whistleblowing affected by, other internal and external corporate mechanisms? In particular, how do organizations differentiate speak-up policies and whistleblowing? Are they separate policies or are they wrapped into one policy? The interaction of whistleblowing with employee codes of conduct also merits study.

Much prior research is based on Anglo-American cultures but findings, in particular from Norway (Skivenes & Trygstad, 2010), suggest that whistleblowing may vary in other countries/cultures. How do other cultures influence whistleblowing in terms of individual, institutional, and country contexts? How do differences in culture, and in countries’ regulatory frameworks, affect whistleblowing? We need to better understand the extent to which individual and situational motivators affect the decision to blow the whistle or not.

Research participants are often asked how seriously they view the wrongdoing. However, we know little of what contributes to perceptions of seriousness. Much prior research focuses on fraud, especially financial statement fraud. Research on other forms of fraud, and on other types of wrongdoing, is warranted. Should financial incentives/rewards for whistleblowers, such as those in the United States, be extended to other countries? Would such financial incentives/rewards make whistleblowing a more effective corporate governance mechanism? How does the corporate governance mechanism of incentive compensation interact with the corporate governance mechanism of whistleblowing? Could compensation systems be designed to support and encourage whistleblowing? Do current compensations systems encourage short-term managerial thinking (Rose et al., 2018), thereby acting against whistleblowing and whistleblowers?

A key interaction is between employees and management. What is the influence of senior managers’ behavior on whether corporate whistleblowing policies are interpreted by staff as ceremonial or substantive? What is it about Scandinavian countries such as Norway that make whistleblowing more effective than in other countries? To what extent has prior research elicited the views of senior management on whistleblowing, given management’s influence on whether employees will blow the whistle? What approaches to reporting wrongdoing are most likely to bring about the whistleblowers’ desired changes? Lee et al. (2004) call for a fuller model of the whistleblowing process to be developed for a sexual harassment context. The #MeTo movement also suggests this type of wrongdoing be revisited.

Concluding Comment

Notwithstanding the extensive research on whistleblowing, the decision to blow the whistle remains mysterious. Understanding employee willingness to report wrongdoing is important as such people are often the first to discover wrongdoing. From an organizational perspective, learning about wrongdoing can limit negative consequences, provided the wrongdoing is addressed. If individuals are willing to report wrongdoing, and if management respond appropriately to reports of wrongdoing, then the internal control environment will be strengthened, which in turn will prevent wrongdoing.

Society’s expectations are changing and social parameters are constantly evolving. Whistleblowing is becoming more politically and socially acceptable. Information on which to base an allegation via whistleblowing is more widely available. Thus, it may be time to expand the definition of whistleblowing to outsiders. Whistleblowers face the dilemma of loyalty to their organization versus complicity in wrongdoing. Employees such as millennials may be less loyal to organizations, a reflection of their lack of trust that organizations will look after them. There is an increasing appreciation that to say nothing is to be complicit with the wrongdoers.


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