What Does Whistleblowing Mean?

Whistleblower+employee+concept+and+whistle+blower+symbol+representing+a+person+in+society+or+a+company+exposing+corruption+as+a+red+whistle+shaped+as+a+human+head+in+a+3D+illustration+style.

Getty Images/iStockphoto

Whistleblower employee concept and whistle blower symbol representing a person in society or a company exposing corruption as a red whistle shaped as a human head in a 3D illustration style.

David Min, Projects Editor

From Watergate to the dangers of tobacco to, most recently, Facebook’s abuse of data, whistleblowers have changed history and exposed government and corporate fraudulent practices.

Whistleblowing is the act of bringing to light fraud, abuse, corruption, dangers to health, and any other government and corporate malpractices which otherwise would have gone undetected.

Typically, whistleblowers are insiders in the organizations they report. Thousands who whistleblow each year help initiate institutional change, thereby affecting large governments, corporations, taxpayers, and shareholders.

Evidence from a whistleblower—Former Associate Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation Mark Felt—led to the fall of President Richard Nixon. Anonymously, Mr. Felt had revealed the government’s coverup of the Watergate break-in to journalists, whose coverage caused Nixon’s resignation.

In 1995, Jeffery Wigland, former vice president of the tobacco company Brown & Williamson, exposed the negative health effects of tobacco, which the industry had attempted to hide, and changed societal perceptions of smoking.

To whistleblow safely and receive legal protection, one must present the information in a legal, protected manner. The False Claims Act provides legal protection and financial awards for individuals who disclose malpractices, and the Clean Air Act protects individuals who disclose practices that harm public health and the environment.

Under the False Claims Act, an individual can file a complaint via a lawsuit on behalf of the U.S. government, known as qui tam suits, and gain protection. For the Clean Air Act—along with any other laws enforced by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)—one can file a complaint via the OSHA complaint form.

Abiding by whistleblower laws can help individuals avoid reprisals from their disclosures while at times providing financial benefits.

Across the country, attorneys and nonprofit organizations like Whistleblower Aid provide legal assistance to those seeking to whistleblow. To learn more, see The Vanguard’s interview with Whistleblower Aid Founder and Chief Disclosure Officer John Tye ’94 on page 9.

Sources: National Whistleblower Center, Occupational Safety and Health Administration, The Washington Post.