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Blowing the whistle: The Process Behind

23.12.2019Comments are closed.

Blowing the whistle: The Process Behind

Whistle-blowers are known as noble characters who make their own sacrifice to expose organisational wrongdoings. Barbara Culiberg and Katarina Katja Mihelič propose a novel approach in studying the whistleblowing phenomena. Their proposed wheel of whistleblowing tries to explain the process of occurrence of whistleblowing through answers to five W questions: Who, What, hoW, Why, and to Whom?

Dr Barbara Culiberg

Assistant Professor, School of Economics and Business, University of Ljubljana (SEB LU), Academic Unit for Marketing

Dr Katarina Katja Mihelič

Associate Professor, School of Economics and Business, University of Ljubljana (SEB LU), Academic Unit for Management and Organisation

What was the inspiration behind studying whistleblowing for you, as researchers coming from two different fields, marketing and management and organisation?

We first started working together on the topic of peer reporting in school – which is an issue we both encountered with our students. We wanted to understand what makes a student report the cheating of their peers. The literature on peer reporting led us to whistleblowing. We found it fascinating, but noticed that there was no comprehensive framework to understand peer reporting or whistleblowing from an ethical perspective. At the same time, there was a lot of buzz in the popular press about whistle-blowers of our time. So we were actually able to witness how whistleblowing unfolds in front of us. This led to our continuous discussions and, eventually, the development of a new whistleblowing framework.

You approach whistle-blowers as individuals who are confronted with an ethical dilemma, based on the business ethics literature, which is a novel approach. What differentiates individuals who blow the whistle from those who see organisational wrongdoings, but do not take any action?

Indeed, we tied business ethics literature to whistleblowing and found many factors that help us understand whistle-blowers. When it comes to individual differences, previous studies are informative. In terms of age, older employees are more likely to blow the whistle. While some studies could not determine whether men or women are more likely to blow the whistle, it is interesting that when Time magazine chose whistle-blowers as their persons of the year, the cover depicting only women. People with higher education and a higher pay level are also more likely to follow through with blowing the whistle. Machiavellianism decreases whistleblowing intentions, while empathy increases them. Another personality trait, extraversion, also leads to more whistleblowing.

Whistle-blowers are considered not only individuals inside the organisation, but also other stakeholders, such as business partners or even clients. Do you have any insights whether the occurrence of digital communications and social networks, where information and communication can spread quicker and broader than ever before, augmented the number of whistle-blowers outside the organisation?

Although one of our main propositions was that people who work outside organisations can also be considered whistle-blowers, not all scholars agree with us, and so this debate continues in academic circles. While advances in ICT and social media have made it easier to reach larger audiences faster, it is important to stress that the channels for whistleblowing have always existed. The reason for the small number of whistleblowing acts may therefore lie in the fact that people who observed wrongdoings do not feel comfortable using the reporting channels because of the negative repercussions that can come after reporting.

What sorts of wrongdoings are more likely to get reported by whistle-blowers? What kind of wrongdoings are less likely to get reported? How do we encourage individuals to expose wrongdoings more?

Existing literature generally demonstrated that the type of wrongdoing affects an individual’s decision to blow the whistle. For example, people will more likely blow the whistle in cases that involve physical harm, for example, health issues and sexual harassment. It is interesting that discrimination against employees does not get reported much. In terms of encouragement, there are large differences among countries. A whistle-blower programme in the US rewards whistle-blowers for providing valuable information about serious violations that results in substantial enforcement actions. In numbers, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission awarded more than $168 million to 13 whistle-blowers last year alone. In the EU we cannot find these kind of incentives.

Is the occurrence of whistleblowing connected to the level of protection of individuals after blowing the whistle? Do you have any insights about the legal protection of whistle-blowers in Slovenia or the European Union?  

Of course, because whistle-blowers often face retaliations and are under a lot of scrutiny, the introduction and implementation of laws protecting whistle-blowers have a profound influence on the decision to blow the whistle. In the EU, the protection of whistle-blowers is weak and fragmented across countries, which dissuades whistle-blowers from coming forward. Because of low whistle-blower protection, there is an estimated loss of 5.8 to 9.6 billion EUR just in public procurement, according to a report solicited by the European Commission.

Note: the content of the interview is based on the article: CULIBERG, Barbara, MIHELIČ, Katarina Katja (2017). The Evolution of Whistleblowing Studies: A Critical Review and Research Agenda. Journal of Business Ethics, 143(4), 787803. DOI: 10.1007/s10551-016-3237-0

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