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What It Means to Whistleblow

The Doe Team

by The Doe Team

| June 28, 2022

What whistleblowing is, why it is important and how to overcome its limitations.

“See something, say something” may sound simple. But it's often not the case when someone comes forward publicly to bring attention to illegal or unethical acts. Whistleblowing is essential but has its limitations. 

Let’s look at why whistleblowing is important, why it’s hard for people to speak up and how we can overcome the constraints and challenges.


What Is a Whistleblower?

A whistleblower reveals private or classified information related to wrongdoing, misconduct or corruption within an organization to relevant authorities or the public. This person can be an employee, supplier, contractor, client or any individual aware of illegal business activities. 

Various government agencies, such as the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and the Wage and Hour Division (WHD), have whistleblower laws to protect government whistleblowers from retaliation.

Why Is Whistleblowing Important?

Whistleblowing detects and prevents wrongdoing, corruption, fraud and other malpractice. Disclosures from whistleblowers have saved millions in public funds and helped avoid many public health and environmental disasters.

The act fosters justice and transparency in public and private sectors by encouraging a culture of accountability and openness. Whistleblower laws empower citizens and make them feel safe about reporting issues that could harm them, their organizations or society. 

Whistleblowing helps organizations combat fraud, avoid reputational damage and prevent issues from escalating. It raises awareness about illegal or unethical activities to help stop breaches quickly and constructively.

What Are the Different Types of Whistleblowing?

Whistleblowing can take many forms and pertain to:

  • Fraud (e.g., healthcare, insurance, investment and tax fraud)
  • A criminal offense
  • A violation of company laws
  • The embezzlement of funds
  • Damages to the environment
  • Dangers to public health and safety
  • A breach of a legal obligation
  • The belief that someone is covering up the above wrongdoings

The Challenges and Limitations of Whistleblowing

Whistleblowing is often a noble act, but it comes with a cost for the whistleblower, who may face retaliation and discrimination. The often lengthy process can cause emotional distress, depression and anxiety. Also, some people are reluctant to whistleblow because it could impact their employability.

Various unfair employment practices, like what this author encountered as an Amazon driver and this writer experienced as a Universal Studios employee, are in the gray zone. While unethical, they aren’t against company laws or criminal offenses—making it hard for people to speak up for fear of retaliation.

“I still went to work, of course, because I had bills to pay. I think that’s how all of us felt. As an employee, you could kind of tell what everybody around you was feeling, which was dread and desperation. We needed a way to survive, and this was the only guaranteed means that we had.”

Meanwhile, some people are afraid to whistleblow because they don't want to face harassment from the majority, like this author, who experienced racism when working at the police department and was punished for acknowledging the issue.

“A few weeks after this interview, my access to our internal information system was revoked. … I believe this was all done in retaliation for my social media comments, and because I’m very supportive of local protests and reallocating some of the department's budget to social-based services.”

Disadvantaged and vulnerable groups—such as inmates and youths in detention centers—don’t have the means to speak up and advocate for themselves. Whistleblowing is a luxury that many can’t afford.

Additionally, some situations are uncharted territories that aren’t codified by law or transcend borders. For example, this author questions the use of thermal cameras in China, which could turn into opportunities for state surveillance and digital authoritarianism around the globe.

Filling the Gap With Anonymous Narratives

Our society needs whistleblowers. However, whistleblowing has many constraints and can’t address many unfair situations and unethical behavior.

For example, this writer raised the issues regarding harassment they experienced at Penn State Athletics, only to be dismissed:

“At the end of their investigation, I was told that what had happened to me and the student-athletes was horrible, but it wasn’t ‘extreme or pervasive’ enough to break any university policy. ... The homophobia and transphobia displayed on the spring break trip from hell weren’t enough. I was told there was nothing anyone could do about what happened to me.”

The public nature of whistleblowing and the ramifications for the whistleblowers may deter some people from speaking up. While whistleblower laws offer protection in many respects, they don’t address the emotional distress that the whistleblower may suffer during the process.

We need an alternative way to raise awareness while protecting those who step up. 

The Doe’s anonymous and verified narratives, such as those we shared in this article, offer people an alternative way to raise awareness about issues without facing the potential distress or undesirable consequences of public whistleblowing.

The format maintains the spirit of whistleblowing: bringing transparency to the actions of corporations and government agencies while raising awareness toward unfair and unethical practices—without adding to the author’s emotional distress.

In fact, sharing their stories allows some to heal. The author who detailed the Penn State Athletics incident wrote:

“So, this is my way of processing and healing: telling my story.”

Enjoy the stories we shared here? Explore other anonymous narratives to hear the voice of others and help raise awareness of unjust practices in society.


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