A. What is Whistleblowing?
Whistleblowing is the act of exposing or reporting unethical, illegal, or fraudulent activities within an organization to the authorities, the media, or the public. Whistleblowers, individuals who witness wrongdoing, come forward to reveal information that is often hidden from the public eye. They play a crucial role in promoting transparency, accountability, and ethical behavior within both public and private institutions.
B. The History of Whistleblowing
Whistleblowing has a rich history that spans centuries, evolving from informal acts of conscience to comprehensive legal frameworks aimed at protecting those who expose wrongdoing. Whistleblowing has historical roots dating back to the 18th century. One of the earliest recorded cases is that of Samuel Shaw and Richard Marven, who exposed corruption in the U.S. Navy in 1777 (Berkebile, 2018). However, the term “whistleblower” gained prominence in the 20th century. The 1960s and 1970s saw an increase in awareness and protection for whistleblowers. The U.S. government enacted the Whistleblower Protection Act in 1989, providing legal safeguards for federal employees who disclose information about misconduct. Overall, the history of whistleblowing reflects a gradual recognition of its importance in promoting transparency, accountability, and ethical behavior within various sectors of society. From early acts of individual conscience to modern legal protections, the evolution of whistleblowing continues to shape ethical standards and accountability worldwide.
C. State Whistleblowing Regulations and Laws in Place to Protect Whistleblowers
A network of laws and regulations reinforces Whistleblowing globally, aiming to shield individuals who expose misconduct from retaliation. In the United States, the Whistleblower Protection Act of 1989 stands as a cornerstone, offering protection to federal employees who disclose information about agency wrongdoing (Devine, 2020). The Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 extends these protections to corporate whistleblowers, focusing particularly on those revealing financial misconduct within companies (Cherry, 2004). Additionally, the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2010 introduced the SEC Whistleblower Program, a pioneering initiative that not only safeguards whistleblowers but also incentivizes their disclosures through financial rewards, creating a powerful mechanism to encourage individuals to come forward with information related to securities violations.
On the international stage, the European Union took a significant step in 2019 by adopting the EU Whistleblower Protection Directive (Abazi, 2020). This directive mandates EU member states to establish comprehensive mechanisms for safeguarding whistleblowers, aligning with the shared commitment to transparency and accountability across the European Union. Beyond Europe, countries such as Australia, Canada, and the United Kingdom have enacted specific legislation to protect whistleblowers, reflecting a global recognition of the importance of fostering a culture where individuals can speak out against wrongdoing without fear of reprisal. These legal frameworks underscore the evolving understanding of the critical role whistleblowers play in upholding ethical standards and maintaining the integrity of public and private institutions.
D. Why is Whistleblowing Important?
Whistleblowing is indispensable for several compelling reasons. Firstly, it operates as a crucial check on corruption and unethical conduct, playing a pivotal role in maintaining and upholding ethical standards within organizations. By bringing to light covert misconduct, whistleblowers act as ethical gatekeepers, fostering an environment where integrity is prioritized.
Secondly, whistleblowing serves as a robust mechanism to protect the public interest. By exposing fraudulent activities, it acts as a preventative measure, thwarting potential harm and financial losses that may result from such malpractices. This protective function is particularly pertinent in industries where public safety and trust are paramount.
Thirdly, whistleblowing is instrumental in enhancing organizational accountability. The exposure of wrongdoing forces organizations to confront and address their actions, contributing to a culture of responsibility and ethical governance. This accountability not only helps in rectifying existing issues but also acts as a deterrent against future misconduct.
Lastly, whistleblowing promotes a culture of transparency within organizations. When employees feel empowered to report unethical behavior without fear of reprisal, it creates an atmosphere of trust. This transparency extends beyond the organization, building credibility with stakeholders and the broader public. Ultimately, whistleblowing emerges as a cornerstone for the promotion of ethical conduct, legal compliance, and the overall well-being of both organizational and societal structures.
E. Why Does One Become a Whistleblower?
The decision to become a whistleblower is nuanced, shaped by a complex interplay of ethical considerations, personal values, and a commitment to the greater good. It reflects a courageous choice to prioritize truth and integrity over personal comfort, often illustrating a profound dedication to the betterment of both the organization and society. Particularly, becoming a whistleblower is a complex decision influenced by factors rooted in a sense of moral obligation and dedication to ethical principles. Many whistleblowers embark on this path due to a profound sense of duty, feeling morally compelled to reveal illicit activities, environmental transgressions, financial fraud, or workplace discrimination that they have witnessed. This moral imperative drives them to navigate the challenges of exposing wrongdoing, often at great personal risk.
In some instances, whistleblowers are motivated by a deep concern for public safety, recognizing the potential harm that can result from concealed malpractices. Their actions, in these cases, serve as a safeguard for the well-being of society. Alternatively, individuals may choose the path of whistleblowing with the intention of catalyzing organizational reform from within, aiming to rectify systemic issues and foster positive change.
F. Whistleblower Story: Emily Cunningham at Amazon
Name of the Company: Amazon
History of the Company:
Established in 1994 as an online bookstore by Jeff Bezos, Amazon swiftly transformed into a global e-commerce and technology powerhouse (Stone, 2013). Its growth extended to diverse services such as cloud computing (Amazon Web Services), streaming (Amazon Prime Video), and smart devices (Amazon Echo). While achieving significant success, Amazon encountered scrutiny for its labor practices, workplace conditions, and environmental impact, prompting ongoing debates about the balance between its corporate achievements and the ethical considerations associated with its operational footprint.
Status of the Company
As of 2023, Amazon maintains its supremacy in the e-commerce and cloud computing sectors, retaining a substantial global footprint across various industries (Goldmann, 2023). Positioned as a pivotal player, the company’s extensive influence endures. Nevertheless, Amazon grapples with persistent scrutiny and challenges, notably concerning labor practices, accusations of anti-competitive behavior, and apprehensions regarding its environmental impact. Despite its market dominance, these ongoing issues highlight the complex landscape within which Amazon operates, underscoring the continuous need for ethical considerations and corporate responsibility in the face of its unparalleled influence.
Whistleblowing Topic and Company Issues
In 2020, the whistleblowing focuses at Amazon revolved around environmental impact and labor practices (The Guardian, 2021). Emily Cunningham and Maren Costa spearheaded employee activism, employing tools like shareholder resolutions and sick-outs to pressure Amazon into acknowledging its role in the climate crisis and enhancing conditions for warehouse staff. Allegations surfaced that the company prioritized profit over environmental responsibility and employee welfare, exposing itself to substantial risks. Amazon faced potential repercussions, including damage to its reputation, increased regulatory scrutiny, and the prospect of legal action. This whistleblowing episode not only shed light on the ethical dilemmas within the tech giant but also underscored the broader challenges faced by employees advocating for corporate responsibility and sustainability in an era of heightened awareness regarding environmental and labor issues.
The Whistleblower and Retaliation
Emily Cunningham, an ex-Amazon employee and a prominent whistleblower, had a central role in organizing climate actions and advocating for improved labor conditions within the company. Despite her dedication to these causes, Cunningham, along with Maren Costa, faced termination in 2020 (The Guardian, 2021). Their activism led to accusations that Amazon retaliated against them for their efforts to hold the company accountable. The emotional toll of the legal process and the imposed isolation during the trial were significant challenges for Cunningham. Despite these hardships, Cunningham remained committed to the cause and continued to speak out against Amazon’s practices.
Class Action Suits
In response to Cunningham and Costa’s termination, they filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) accusing Amazon of firing them in retaliation for their activism. This legal action did not proceed to a public trial, as Amazon settled with the duo. The settlement included an agreement to pay back wages to Cunningham and Costa and to post notices in offices and warehouses nationwide, explicitly stating that Amazon is not allowed to fire workers for organizing (The Guardian, 2021). While Amazon did not admit liability, the resolution was considered a significant victory for the whistleblowers and a recognition of the legitimacy of their activism.
Emily Cunningham’s story at Amazon reflects the broader challenges faced by employees advocating for change within large corporations. It highlights the complex dynamics of environmental activism, labor practices, and the delicate balance between corporate interests and employee rights. Cunningham’s resilience, coupled with the collective support she garnered, underscores the growing importance of employee activism in shaping corporate behavior and promoting ethical practices within the tech industry.
Recommendations on How to Improve and Encourage Whistleblowing within an Organization
To cultivate a workplace culture that values transparency and encourages whistleblowing, organizations should prioritize the establishment of robust reporting channels. This involves creating easily accessible and confidential mechanisms through which employees can voice their concerns. Implementing dedicated hotlines, online platforms, or confidential email channels provides a secure space for individuals to disclose information without the fear of retaliation. These reporting avenues should be widely publicized within the organization, underscoring the company’s commitment to addressing issues and fostering an open dialogue.
Simultaneously, organizations must ensure the anonymity of whistleblowers. By guaranteeing confidentiality, companies instill trust in employees, assuring them that their disclosures will be treated with discretion. Regularly reviewing and updating these reporting channels ensures their effectiveness and relevance over time. An engaged and informed workforce, confident in the efficacy and confidentiality of reporting mechanisms, is more likely to come forward with valuable information, contributing to a proactive and ethical organizational culture. Establishing these robust reporting channels serves as a foundational step in building an environment where whistleblowing is seen as a constructive and essential aspect of organizational integrity.
Abazi, V. (2020). The European Union whistleblower directive: a ‘game changer ‘for whistleblowing protection? Industrial Law Journal, 49(4), 640-656. https://doi.org/10.1093/indlaw/dwaa023
Berkebile, C. (2018). The Puzzle of Whisteblower Protection Legislation: Assembling the Piecemeal. Ind. Int’l & Comp. L. Rev., 28, 1.
Cherry, M. A. (2004). Whistling in the dark? Corporate fraud, whistleblowers, and the implications of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act for employment law. Wash. L. Rev., 79, 1029.
Devine, T. M. (2020). The whistleblower protection act of 1989: Foundation for the modern law of employment dissent. In Freedom of Information (pp. 303-352). Routledge.
Goldmann, B. L. (2023). Blocking the global factory: transnational worker organising in e-commerce and logistics–the case of Amazon.
Stone, B. (2013). The everything store: Jeff Bezos and the age of Amazon. Random House.
The Guardian. (2021, October 9). “Welcome to the party”: Five past tech whistleblowers on the pitfalls of speaking out. https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2021/oct/08/tech-whistleblowers-facebook-frances-haugen-amazon-google-pinterest