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The Responsibility to Blow the Whistle

The decision to withdraw support from a leader does not automatically require disavowing that leader. Followers may simply decide there are more important purposes and more values-centered leaders to support or that they are ready to test their own leadership abilities. We can withdraw amicably without detailing our reasons. This is the most common way of leaving. Résumés and references, if not relationships, mostly stay intact.

However, there are circumstances when followers have further obligations. When a leader’s actions seriously endanger the organization or community, silent withdrawal is inappropriate. We need to draw public scrutiny to those actions. When respect for human life, the welfare of children, or the rule of law and other basic moral values are violated, a line is crossed. Public exposure is a primary tool for disempowering leaders who abuse their power or who permit others in the organization to do so.

Somewhere at this juncture it can be said that an individual crosses a line from courageous follower to whistleblower. Not all whistleblowers are courageous followers. Some are angry individuals who, based on their own histories, do not trust authority. Others may be timid. They have not really given their leadership a fair opportunity to correct the wrongdoing that they have discovered. Public disclosure can be premature, irrevocably damage their relationships, and hurt their organization’s ability to perform its mission.

Conversely, not all courageous followers are whistleblowers, if the term is used to mean going around the leader or even outside the organization to remedy a wrong. Often, courageous followers work with their leaders to remedy situations they have discovered. The most successful have no need to become whistleblowers. Of course, whether they feel the need to cross over the line and become a whistleblower depends on the response of their leaders to their efforts to remedy organizational wrongdoing.

If leaders at the various levels of the organization to which we have access fail to respond when serious transgressions are brought to their attention, or seem to stall and endlessly delay action, we must consider going outside the organization for intervention. As loyal followers, we must first disavow ourselves of the idea that things will improve if the evidence points overwhelmingly to the contrary. There comes a point when we cannot believe words. We can only believe actions.

When our leaders’ actions violate basic human decency or laws and regulations designed to protect the common welfare, a courageous follower should consider the following gradations of response:

The first incident or suggestion of violating basic human values, or laws and regulations consistent with these values, must be energetically challenged at the level it occurs, or at higher levels as necessary, using all the tools available for effectively engaging the leaders.

If a second incident occurs, the response must be a clear moral statement of intent to withdraw all support should the behavior recur in any form. (If, in extreme cases, announcing the intention would jeopardize the follower’s physical safety, it is best to proceed as if a third incident had occurred.)

Begin preparing for the potential need to blow the whistle on the immoral activities by documenting them so your claims cannot be easily discredited.

Any further incident should be met by blowing the whistle on the immoral activity through whatever channels are available.

If you cannot obtain documentation or corroboration for all your claims but can for one claim, focus public attention on this point. One irrefutable demonstration of a leader or organization’s malfeasance is more powerful than many refutable charges.

Once we publicly disavow the leader’s actions, restraints on speech are lifted, and we can communicate more forcefully to a broader audience. Whatever power we possessed by being close to a leader can now be directed to exposing the violation of values we have witnessed or perhaps even contributed to.

This is not a happy juncture as it signals that our loyal efforts to transform the offending behavior have failed. However, if the public actions taken are proportional to the potential for harm to the organization and those whom its actions affect, it is still a courageous act designed to serve the common purpose and the community values in which it is pursued.