The Psychology of Whistleblowing: Why It’s Necessary to Speak Up

Posted on February 11, 2021

It seems every few months, we learn of a new outrageous corporate scandal in our country. Just this year, we’ve learned about Caterpillar Inc’s massive fraud, sexual harassment at Uber, and drug price collusion by Perrigo and other drug manufacturers.

These violations come to light thanks to whistleblowers who were brave enough to step forward and expose corruption. It’s not just consumers who reap the benefits of whistleblowing, but citizens at large. Thanks to whistleblowers, the Department of Justice was able to recover $4.7 billion through the False Claims Act in 2016.

Yet, although whistleblowers have been responsible for uncovering some of the biggest scandals, exposing corruption, even saving lives, they often have a hard time making the decision to come forward and are many times criticized by the public.

So, what exactly drives a whistleblower to speak up? What obstacles do they have to overcome, and, is anyone capable of being a whistleblower?

How Whistleblowing is Portrayed and Perceived

When it comes to whistleblowers, the world tends to take a black or white view. They’re either heroes who denounce evil, or villains who bite the hand that feeds them.

Our culture paints whistleblowers in absolutes and with each case, we’re left to decide whether a whistleblower is a brave soul standing up for truth, or if they have a personal agenda and are seeking revenge.

Bloomberg’s piece on Caterpillar’s whistleblowers explains eloquently: “The corporate whistleblower is at once a celebrated and tortured figure in American culture. Think of Jeffrey Wigand, bane of the tobacco industry, and Enron scold Sherron Watkins, both portrayed in books and movies as people who told truth to power and paid a personal price.”

Once we break free from the dichotomy whistleblowing is so often relegated to, we can understand the nuance of the whistleblower’s problem. When we take stock of what whistleblowers have to face – retaliation, job insecurity, backlash – we can understand that blowing the whistle is a serious decision made when people are confronted with serious wrongdoing.

And although it’s illegal for employers to retaliate against whistleblowers, many employees are unaware of this fact, or are scared of being stigmatized.

C. Frederick Alford, a political psychology professor at University of Maryland, explains that even though society may consider whistleblowers brave, the reason behind the stigma associated with speaking up is that humans are tribal beings and we feel a sense of discomfort with those who break from the tribe.

What Actually Goes Through the Mind of a Whistleblower?

To investigate the psychology of whistleblowing, professors Adam Waytz (Northwestern University) James Dungan and Liane Young (both Boston College) conducted a series of studies in 2013.

In a Gray Matter piece in the New York Times, they describe the studies they performed to shed light on the moral psychology of whistleblowing and what they found about ways to encourage or discourage the practice. The results of this study were published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

In one study, the professors asked research participants to write about an occasion when they witnessed unethical behavior and reported it. They asked another group to write about a time when they did not speak up after witnessing wrongdoing.

When they analyzed the written paragraphs, the professors found that whistleblowers used 10 times as many words related to fairness and justice, while those that hadn’t spoken up used twice as many terms related to loyalty.

Waytz, Dungan and Young published an analysis of their studies in the journal Current Opinion in Psychology, describing the decision to blow the whistle as a tradeoff between fairness and loyalty. Those that value fairness more, they explain, are more likely to become whistleblowers, while those that place higher value on loyalty are less likely to blow the whistle.

We can see, then, why the split view of whistleblowers exists: those who value fairness are similarly more likely to view whistleblowers favorably, while those that prioritize loyalty are more likely to associate whistleblowing with betrayal.

But that doesn’t mean that there are just two types of people: potential whistleblowers and not.

Is There a Whistleblowing “Type?”

Alford, the political psychology professor at University of Maryland, has spent more than a decade researching what motivates some people to speak up and others to not. In 2001, he published a book on the matter. In an interview with Mother Jones, Alford discussed that after setting out to find a set of characteristics that make a person prone to becoming a whistleblower, he found no significant overarching similarities between people who’d spoken up about wrongdoing.

Instead, “it’s less about the psychology of the individual and more about the severity of the situation they’ve uncovered,” says Janet P. Near, a professor at the Kelley School of Business at Indiana University who has studied whistleblowing for over three decades. She attributes people’s decision to blow the whistle to situational characteristics instead of personal ones, such as the degree of the wrongdoing and how certain they were of its occurrence.

According to a 2013 Ethics Resource Center Report, out of the 45 percent of employees in business who witness misconduct, 64 percent do report it. It’s only a small fraction of the cases that become highly visible, and that is often because those people faced internal retaliation and had to seek help outside of their organization.

In these cases, says Alford, the organization will often “[t]ake the focus off the issue and put the focus on the whistleblower” and “pathologize the whistleblower.”

Changing the Way We Think of Whistleblowers

Not only is there not a specific type of person that becomes a whistleblower, but it turns out that people can be influenced to change their reactions to unethical behavior.

The aforementioned studies performed by Waytz, Dungan and Young also looked to see if whistleblowing decisions could be susceptible to manipulation and found that “even a nudge” can affect people’s whistleblowing behavior.

To test if people could be influenced to speak up after witnessing improper behavior, they had participants across two experiments write short essays: some on the importance of fairness, and some on the importance of loyalty. They found that participants who wrote about fairness were more willing to blow the whistle than those whose topic was loyalty.

Although the researchers are careful to note that a five-minute writing task may not influence a huge confidential leak, per se, they conclude that their studies suggest that those who want to encouraging whistleblowing in their organizations should use language in mission statements, codes of ethics, or advertising that emphasizes fairness. To convince those who prioritize loyalty above all, organizations should reframe whistleblowing as an act of larger loyalty to the greater good and to society.

For the researchers, finding a way to resolve conflict between the moral values of fairness and loyalty was an important conclusion. And it should be, since companies, the government, and our society relies on people speaking up to expose illegal and unethical violations.

Finding the Strength to Blow the Whistle

Constructive dissent, or internal handling of complaints, is the ideal way to handle improper conduct, fraud and corruption. Unfortunately, not all companies are interested in loyalty to the greater good, but put profits over people instead.

Because of this, our country has laws that protect whistleblowers who expose fraud against the government. And to compensate whistleblowers for their bravery and potential sacrifice, the law entitles them to compensation of any recovery the government makes.

Our attorneys have recovered more than than $1B for whistleblowers who took a stand. And not only does the False Claims act protect against retaliation from employers, but these qui tam cases are filed under seal, which keeps the whistleblower’s identity confidential as long as possible.

If you’ve witnessed wrongdoing and have been weighing the pros and cons of speaking up, contact our whistleblower attorneys for a free and confidential case evaluation.