WHISTLEBLOWING: A Critique of Definitions

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1.1.1 Definition of Research Terms

                Near and Miceli define ‘whistleblowing’ as ‘the disclosure by organisation members (former or current) of illegal, immoral or illegitimate practices under the control of their employers, to persons or organisations that may be able to effect action.[3] There are several definitions of whistleblowing that have been put forward, however, this definition embraces many aspects of the subject matter. The definition deduced four essential process for whistleblowing (the whistleblower, the wrongdoing, the organisation and the complaint recipient) by the authors.

               From the definition, a former or current employee for numerous reasons can decide to expose misconduct in an organisation. Loyalty can be a fundamental reason to act in accordance with organisational missions, goals, values and codes of conduct for organisation effectiveness. Importantly, whistleblowing can also be attributed to a pro-social behaviour, with a clear intension of benefiting other persons such as colleagues and the general public. A whistleblower might decide to report a misconduct as a result of their inability to influence any change in the organisation. Anonymous reporting can be adopted by a whistleblower in order to avert retaliation. Also, the duty of a whistleblower in the job role can necessitate them to blow a whistle, however, they can equally be put under pressure not to disclose any wrongdoing.

        The other attribute of the definition is the nature of the wrongdoing and the potential consequences that largely determines the decision to blow the whistle. Characteristics of the wrongdoing can have significant impact whether to make known of any misconduct.  Prior to blowing the whistle, the perceived severity of the misconduct can foster the determination to report them after weighing the option. Likely types of wrongdoing include but not limited to violations of criminal law, violation of regulations, actions that result in physical harm and financial harm. Violations of significant magnitude would probably attract whistleblowing. Misconduct within the authority of the organisation can be acceptable by the organisational member precluding the whistleblower that can oppose the illegitimate acts.

         Another core element of the definition is the type of organisation in which the misconduct is reported. Responding to whistleblowing in organisation vary considerably, private sectors respond in a different manner than public sector which can be attributed to a cultural sector specific.  Organisation effectiveness can be determined by the way it respond to whistleblowing, reported misconduct that is acted upon swiftly can correct wrongdoing promptly and build employees confidence. However, unconducive working environment imbedded with dismissive paradigm might warrant whistleblowing. At such, employees are likely to face restrictions and they can be silent in reporting any misconduct especially when an organisation is intolerant of dissent.

       The final element in assessing the definition is how misconduct is reported internally in organisation to a supervisor, co-workers or to designated recipient such as ombudsperson. On occasion, when the disclosure is made to an external body, such as the government, the press or a law enforcement agency, it is said to be an external whistleblowing. This element of the whistleblowing process is arguable the most crucial one, as the recipient of the complaint determine the next line of action. The outcome of the complaint from the recipient within and outside the organisation might be different. External recipient is likely to undertake thorough investigation for positive outcome. While the internal recipient investigation will be determinant on the culture of the organisation or the procedural nature of whistleblowing in the organisation.  

1.1.2. Criticism of the definition

The authors identified crucial issues that can foster reporting of misconducts in an organisation, however, other several challenges were not acknowledged. Near and Miceli[4] ignored the moral ethics view of whistleblowing. The scholars also referenced theories of motivation, power and dependency in the study but failed to emphasize financial rewards. Moreover, defining whistleblowers as ‘people without authority or legitimate power’ who must rely on other informal bases of power to change certain activities deemed illegal, unfair or inappropriate within their organisation is wrong on the basis that senior auditors, board members, ombudsmen or top management officials can blow the whistle on their own companies/employers either internally or externally[5].

   However, Near and Miceli found that whistleblowing mainly occurs when employees or former employees believe they have proof of organisational wrongdoing. This assertion negates the fact that disclosures on perceived or actual wrongdoings are acceptable for further investigations.  Near and Miceli also remarked that employers usually mount pressure to persuade employees with explicit or implicit threat of retaliatory actions if they insist on making disclosures to external authorities. But there are certain legal provisions in Whistleblower Protection Laws that cover circumstances where an employee reports directly to external authorities against existing guidelines established within the organisation, if any[6]. However, the scholars emphasized on the importance of institutionalising hotlines to enable anonymous reporting[7].

     Their work titled “Organisational Dissidence: The Case of Whistleblowing” is basically flawed for asserting that ‘whistleblowing is an act of dissidence’ and describing it as ‘somewhat analogous to civil disobedience.’

[1] Abazi V. ‘Whistleblowing in Europe: A New Era at Legal Protection’ (Cambridge 2019) 44

[2] European Commission. ‘Whistleblower Protection: Commission sets new EU-wide rules’ (Press Release 2018), https://ec.europa.eu/newsroom/just/item-detail.cfm?item_id=54254

[3] Miceli, M.P., Near, J.P & Martocchio, J.J. (Ed.). ‘Standing Up or Standing By: What Predicts Blowing the Whistle on Organizational Wrongdoing?’ (2005) 24; 95-136. Research in Personnel and Human Resources Management

[4] Hobby C. ‘Worker and Organisational Protection: The Future of Whistleblowing in the Gig Economy’ (Emerald Publishing Limited: Bingley 2020) 107-127

[5] Kenny K. ‘Whistleblowing. Toward a new theory’ (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press 2019) 296

[6] Gramm, C.L. and Schnell, J.F. ‘Remedy-Seeking Responses to Discrimination: Does Management-Employee Similarity Matter?’ (Emerald Group Publishing Limited: Bingley 2016) 22; 69-103

[7] Young R. ‘An Empirical Examination of Psychological Climate and Internal Disclosure Policy Compliance’ (2016) 19; 127-154 Advances in Accounting Behavioural Research


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