The origins of whistleblowing have been compared to English common law notions of raising the “hue and cry” to create a public uproar when a crime was discovered (Stephen, 2004). Other scholars have traced the term to a referee who blows the whistle to halt action or to a police officer who blows a whistle and yells “stop thief.” Gerald Vinten notes that the first known use of the term was in reference to the 1963 Otto Otopeka case (Thompson, 2001).
Otopeka provided classified documents concerning security risks to the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Internal Security that resulted in the firing of the Secretary of State Dean Rusk. Whistleblowing is defined under the Whistleblower Protection Act as the “disclosure of information that an employee reasonably believes is evidence of illegality, gross waste, gross mismanagement, abuse of power, or substantial and specific danger to public health or safety.” (Stephen, 2004: p45)
The efforts of whistleblowers have resulted in the exposure of dangerous workplace environments and deviant organizational practices that have served as the impetus for major organizational changes and government prosecutions of malfeasance. Infamous whistleblowers include, for example, Frank Serpico who reported widespread corruption in the New York City police department in the late 1960s. Ernest Fitzgerald was fired by the Pentagon in the 1970s after he revealed a billion-dollar waste overrun on military aircraft contracts (Alan, 2001).
Three famous Whistleblowers
In 2002, Time magazine named three whistleblowers as Persons of the Year. Sherron Watkins was a vice president at Enron who first warned the chairman of improper accounting methods. Coleen Rowley was a Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) staff attorney who reported negligence within the agency on the investigation of a man who later was charged as a co-conspirator in the September 11, 2003, terrorist attacks. Cynthia Cooper helped uncover WorldCom's attempt to cover up $3.8 billion in losses when she informed the company's board members of the “creative” accounting. Though these whistleblowers have been designated heroes for uncovering fraud and malfeasance, traditionally, companies and colleagues have viewed employees who report wrongdoing as disloyal rats who are prone to tattle-telling (John, 1998).
Motives of Whistleblowers
Motives of whistleblowers often are difficult to disentangle from the circumstances and complexities surrounding each unique case. While the motivations and ethics of whistleblowing often are difficult to generalize, similarities are noted in the literature. Researchers have discovered that whistleblowers are likely to have a high level of moral development, high self-esteem, and an internal locus of control. Whistleblowers consider themselves loyal employees who are committed to their organizations. Often, they have attempted to rectify the situation through internal reporting, but as a result of the negative labels and retaliation resort to external sources. When deciding to report, observers of illegal or immoral actions also consider the personal costs of reporting (Kohn, 2001).
High Price for Dissenting
In certain circumstances, whistleblowers pay a high price for dissenting. They may suffer retaliation through demotions or firing. Their family life may be disrupted; they can become targets ...