In June 2013 Edward Snowden informed the public through The Guardian and The Washington Post of the existence of mass surveillance programs led by the US National Security Agency and the British Government Communication headquarters. By doing so he automatically joined the famous club of whistleblowers that walk on a thin line between hero and snitch along with Julian Assange and Bradley Manning. In general the term whistleblower describes a person who discloses misconduct ranging from health and safety risk for the public, law and ethics violation, human rights abuse to corruption. However, the vast majority of whistleblowers are actually not as famous as the latter mentioned men and operate in a smaller setting.
The average whistleblower
A recent study of 1000 whistleblowers in the UK published by the University of Greenwich together with the whistleblower advice platform PCaW shed light on the typical whistleblower: he or she is a skilled (e.g. brokers, engineers ect.) or professional worker (e.g. teachers, doctors ect.), that has been employed for less than 2 years, and most likely works in one of the following industries: health care, education or charities. Concerns that might arise refer mainly to ethical or financial malpractice and work safety. Although the alleged wrongdoer has usually a more powerful position than his, the whistleblower feels the urge to report the misconduct as he acknowledges the risk of harming a wider public.
Unlike Assange & Co only very few whistleblowers seek help from media or unions. Usually employees are willing to inform their organization internally about their concerns and even 60% of those who take three attempts to raise awareness of a wrongdoing, continue to seek attention within the company. Unfortunately, this seems to have no impact as in more than half of the cases the management does not respond at all, neither positive nor negative. In case of a response, whistleblowers are confronted with formal consequences like job reassignment, relocation and dismissal, with an increasing risk for whistleblowers who dare to not give up and have a higher position.
If the issue receives enough attention, a standard whistleblower manages to make a difference and wrongdoers are stopped from further doing wrong. However, this has to be taken with a salt of grain, because 85% of the whistleblowers keep on struggling with the consequences even though the initial misconduct was resolved. This shows that the actual focus lies on correcting the situation and not on protecting the employee who pointed it out in the first place.
An effective fraud detection
In reality, blowing the whistle has little impact and a great chance of being ignored by organizations. But it is time to change this and not only for the sake of the whistleblower! Why? Fraud due to economic crime is actually pretty expensive for companies. 1 out of 10 defrauded companies loses more than 5 million US$ and suffers from negative impact on business relations and brand reputation . That is when whistleblowers come into play. It has been shown that double as many fraud cases were detected by whistleblowers than by professional auditors. This might then lead to saving huge amounts of money. Implementing a system that takes internally raised concerns by employees seriously will help to detect wrongdoing in an early stage and will improve the situation of both, the whistleblower and the company.
Whistleblowing can make you rich
While most of us would undoubtedly see the whistleblower as a person who will be suffering for his or her brave disclosure, successful ones can actually earn a substantial amount of money. The US congress for example authorized the “Office of the whistleblower” to award individuals with money if they leaked information leads within a legal action in which a sanction over $1,000,000 is ordered. The whistleblower can cash between 10 and 30% of the recovered sum. This is not the only whistleblower program with high rewards, there are other programs run by the Commodity Futures Trading Commission and the IRS. The case of Bradley Birkenfeld is a good example: an ex-banker who gave a hand with catching bank bosses that helped clients hide their money in Swiss accounts. He was rewarded with 104 million US$ by the IRS Whistleblower Office.
How to blow the whistle
A lot of money for accomplishing a noble act is indeed appealing to many of us, but high reward is rare and the “number-one-reason” for disclosure is and will be the personal desire to avoid unfairness and fraud.
Those, who have the courage to risk their comfortable life, will never be prepared enough. The least they could do is make use of the increasing number of whistleblower help services initiated by private (like whistleblowing Austria) and governmental platforms (e.g. from the austrian ministry of justice).
In our society there should always be a place for people who dare to say the truth and we should keep in mind Einstein’s words:
“The world is a dangerous place to live; not because of the people who are evil, but because of the people who don’t do anything about it.”
Also watch Julian Assange’s TED talk on why we need whistleblowers: