What is a whistleblower? Definition and meaning

A whistleblower, also spelled whistle blower or whistle-blower, is an employee who publicly reports immoral, unethical or illegal activities that are or have been going on in his or her company or organization. The organization might be a business, government department, the police, army, charity, church, or any type of employer.

The alleged activity can be classified in a number of ways:

– a violation of the organization’s policy,

– a violation of the organization’s rules,

– a miscarriage of justice,

– against the law of the land,

– a threat to public interest,

– a threat to national security,

– fraudulent or corrupt activities,

– a person’s health or safety is in danger,

– there is risk or actual damage to the environment,

– the whistleblower believes that somebody is covering up wrongdoing.

Whistle BlowerBeing a whistleblower can be a very lonely, stressful and sometimes dangerous experience.

Whistleblowers expose internally or externally

The whistleblower can choose to expose the information or allegations either externally or internally. Internally, he or she can bring the accusations to the attention of relevant people within the accused organization.

Externally, he or she can make the allegations public by contacting a third party outside of the organization.



Whistleblowers can reach out to members of the media, government employees, the police, or individuals who are concerned but could also face unpleasant reprisal or retaliation from the person or people involved in the alleged wrongdoing.

How whistleblowers are perceived

Whistleblowers may be seen as selfless, brave individuals – almost martyrs – who risk everything for the public interest and organizational accountability. Others may view them as ‘defectors’ or ‘traitors’.

Edward SnowdenEdward Snowden is perhaps the best-known whistleblower today. When he was a Boos Allen Hamilton contractor, Mr. Snowden released classified documents on top-secret NSA programs including the PRISM surveillance program to the Washington Post and The Guardian in June 2013. He is living in an undisclosed location in Russia and is believed to be seeking asylum elsewhere. (Image: Wikipedia)

Whenever a big case of whistle blowing hits the headlines, reactions are usually mixed, depending on which way a newspaper, TV/radio channel, or website leans.

Some media outlets may even accuse whistleblowers of solely pursuing personal glory – their 15 minutes of fame – or being driven by money in qui tam cases (where there is a reward).

It is likely that the risk of ending up in legal trouble, having their names dragged through mud, reprisal and retaliation, puts many people off blowing the whistle on illegal or unethical activities that they are aware of. Some may not want to lose their relationships at work and in their personal lives.

Wrongdoing must be in public interest

According to the UK Government, a person is a whistleblower if he or she is a worker and reports certain types of wrongdoing. This will generally be something they have seen at work – but not always.

The wrongdoing that the person discloses must be in the public interest. This means that it has to affect others, such as members of the general public.

The British Government writes on its website:

“As a whistleblower you’re protected by law – you shouldn’t be treated unfairly or lose your job because you ‘blow the whistle’.”

“You can raise your concern at any time about an incident that happened in the past, is happening now, or you believe will happen in the near future.”

Samuel ProvanceSamuel Provance was a system administrator for U.S. Army Military Intelligence at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. He publicly revealed the role of interrogators in the abuses, as well the effort to cover-up the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse itself. (Image: Wikipedia)

In most nations, a whistleblower is protected if he or she is:

1. An employee, such as an office worker, factory worker, public or private health employee, or a police officer.

2. A trainee, such as a student nurse or junior doctor.

3. An agency employee.

4. A member of a Limited Liability Partnership.

In the vast majority of cases, a ‘gagging clause’ or confidentiality clause in a settlement agreement is not valid if the person is a whistleblower.

Whistleblower protection in the United States

The US Department of Labor says that OSHA’s (Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s) whistleblower statutes protect Americans from retaliation. It says that an employer cannot retaliate by taking ‘adverse action’ against employees who report safety concerns, injuries, or other protected activity.

Since the OSH Act became law in 1970, Congress has expanded OSHA’s whistleblower activity to protect employees from retaliation under 21 federal laws.

The Labor Department states that complaints must be reported to OSHA within set timeframes following the retaliatory action, as prescribed by each law.

The US Labor Department writes on its website:

“File a complaint if your employer has retaliated against you for exercising your rights as an employee. In states with approved State OSHA Plans, employees may file a complaint under the OSH Act with both the State and Federal OSHA. Under the other federal laws, a complaint must be filed with Federal OSHA directly.”

People wishing to file a complaint can do so by calling 1-800-321-OSHA (6742), or contacting their local OSHA office.

US law prohibits employers from discriminating against whistleblowers. Any worker who has been retaliated or discriminated against for exercising their rights, should file a complaint with OSHA within 30 days of the alleged adverse action.

Daniel ElsbergDaniel Eslberg, a former U.S. military analyst, who in 1971 leaked a top-secret Pentagon study of the U.S. government’s rationale behind its decisions during the Vietnam War. These documents – The Pentagon Papers – were widely published by The Washington Post and The New York Times. In 1998 he said: “The public is lied to every day by the President, by his spokespeople, by his officers. If you can’t handle the thought that the President lies to the public for all kinds of reasons, you couldn’t stay in the government at that level.” (Image: Wikipedia)

Whistle blowing – a dangerous move?

Despite all the assurances from governments, lawyers and public bodies about the protections offered to most whistleblowers, making allegations public is a brave and often dangerous thing to do.

Whistleblowers face social stigma, being ridiculed and stained unpleasantly by powerful people, being lied about by the media, losing their jobs and the undermining their career prospects, legal action, and criminal charges.

In the United States and many other countries, whistle-blowing in a public sector organization can mean a serious risk of a federal felony charge and possibly jail time.

A whistleblower who reveals secret information from military intelligence or spying agencies, such as the UK’s MI5 or America’s CIA, could face life imprisonment, and in some nations – if he or she is found guilty of treason – the death penalty.

A whistleblower who accuses a private sector organization or agency faces the risk of losing his or her job, as well as legal and civil charges.

Julian AssangeJulian Assange, founder and editor-in-chief of WikiLeaks, an international, non-profit, journalistic organization that publishes leaked data from whistleblowers – more than 1.2 million leaks to date. After being pursued by Swedish authorities, he sought and was granted asylum at the Ecuadoran embassy in London – he has been there since August 2012. (Image: Wikipedia)

Although legal protection is theoretically granted for whistleblowers, that protection is in reality subject to several stipulations.

Even though hundreds of laws exist to protect whistleblowers, the stipulations can easily cloud the quality or degree of that protection, leaving whistleblowers vulnerable to retaliation and legal problems.

The following quote regarding whistleblowers comes from a 2013 report – Late lessons from early warnings: science, precaution, innovation – published by the European Environment Agency:

“Employees in academia, business or government might become aware of serious risks to health and the environment, but internal policies might pose threats of retaliation to those who report these early warnings.”

“Private company employees in particular might be at risk of being fired, demoted, denied raises and so on for bringing environmental risks to the attention of appropriate authorities. Government employees could be at a similar risk for bringing threats to health or the environment to public attention, although perhaps this is less likely.”

US Securities and Exchange Commission

The SEC (Securities and Exchange Commission) has an Office of the Whistleblower. Its chief, Sean McKessy, says that assistance and information from a whistleblower who knows of securities law violations can be among the most powerful weapons in the arsenal of the law enforcement department of the SEC.

According to Mr. McKessy:

“Through their knowledge of the circumstances and individuals involved, whistleblowers can help the Commission identify possible fraud and other violations much earlier than might otherwise have been possible.”

“That allows the Commission to minimize the harm to investors, better preserve the integrity of the United States’ capital markets, and more swiftly hold accountable those responsible for unlawful conduct.”

The SEC is authorized by the US Congress to provide rewards to whistleblowers, which range from 10% to 30% of the fines and sanctions collected. Thanks to whistleblowers, the SEC’s enforcement action has led to more than $1 billion in sanctions.

The Office of the Whistleblower invites individuals who wish to share information to telephone (202) 551-4790.

Origin of the term ‘whistleblower’

The term ‘whistleblower’ has not been around for that long. The notion is related to the whistle used by a referee when foul play or rule-breaking is spotted.

Ralf Nader, an American political activist, author, lecturer and attorney, is believed to have coined the term in the early 1970s. The aim was to introduce a term with a positive feel, and to replace words with negative connotations like informer, snitch, mole, rat, squealer, stool pigeon or grass.

Video – What is a whistleblower?

In this video, a lawyer explains that the government relies on whistleblowers to report any illegal activity in its departments, and also in private companies.