Tuesday, 2 October 2012

When do people whistle-blow?

Corruption and bad practice remain an issue in institutions. External governance and regulation offers some protection, but issues can remain invisible to outsiders. This is where whistle-blowers come in, but what propels an individual to stand up and speak out? That´s what a new paper by Marcia Miceli and colleagues seeks to understand.

The researchers surveyed a military base, receiving 3,288 questionnaires back from military and civilian employees. Respondents were asked if they had perceived wrongdoing and how they responded: reporting it to supervisors, others internal to the organisation, externally, or not at all. Against these categories, they reviewed a number of variables, to see what effect they had in sorting people into active agents and passive. Perhaps unsurprisingly, proactive personality traits turned out to predict whistle-blowing, but a number of situational factors also arose as important.

Firstly, does the amount of hard evidence of wrong-doing matter? Previous data has been equivocal, and the invitation made to whistle-blowers is to come forward with suspicions, not to turn up with a comprehensive dossier. And motivation to speak out has previously been associated with outrage and moral obligation, tied up with hot emotions rather than cool appraisal of data. Miceli's team tried to get a comprehensive take on evidence by using a formative index, a smorgasbord measure made up of mixed but relevant concepts ('I had physical evidence' and 'the evidence was convincing to me') to go beyond what they perceived as previous narrow measures of evidence. And indeed, the data showed that more evidence, in its various forms, is a driver of taking whistle-blowing action.

Secondly, do the opinions of co-workers matter? It seems so: surveyants who checked items such as their co-workers 'were afraid to report it' or thought 'someone else would report it' were less likely to whistle blow. And thirdly, surveyants were more likely to act when they had situation-specific leverage, such as an expert in finance considering whether to report seeming budget irregularities. Previous research had suggested that generalised power in the organisation might have some effect, but this was a clear demonstration of the importance of context, that the reach of the finance pro may not extend to raising age discrimination issues.

Miceli and her team conclude that this data is consistent with the pro-social organisational behaviour model, in which a perception of responsibility to act (here influenced by innate character and having access to evidence) makes us weigh the costs (signalled by co-worker unwillingness) and benefits (stopping the wrongdoing, more likely if we have leverage and evidence) to reach a decision. They suggest that while organisations are often focused on the aftermath, protecting whistle-blowers from retaliation, they could give more attention to putting these antecedent factors in place: educating on what constitutes sufficient evidence to speak out, encouraging a culture shift to avoid the chilling effect of co-worker invalidation, and increasing perceptions of leverage: perhaps, 'when it comes to speaking out about this organisation, we are all experts'.

ResearchBlogging.orgMarcia P Miceli, Janet P Near, Michael T Rehg, & James R Van Scotter (2012). Predicting employee reactions to perceived organizational wrongdoing: Demoralization, justice, proactive personality, and whistle-blowing Human Relations, 65, 923-954 DOI: 10.1177/0018726712447004


  1. As a teacher my experience of "whistle blowing" is in terms of reporting concerns about child protection. In schools we are actively encouraged to be a whistle blower and as such the situational factors outlined in this piece are very much a feature of a school environments. Teachers are frequently reminded that inaction is punishable and the culture is conducive to action because the systems support it. I would be very interested to see if any research has suggested that the type of organisation plays a role.

  2. That's fascinating and makes a lot of sense. I don't know of any direct work on whistleblowing in teaching but it would certainly be interesting. More broadly, it seems that organisational culture and attitude towards whistleblowing is a factor that matters, but I haven't seen a systematic analysis myself.