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.

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.

Occupational Safety and Health refers to the wellbeing, safety, and health of employees, employers, and anybody else who may be affected by workplace dangers. Sometimes it also includes customers and suppliers.

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.

Notable whistleblowers

2014 – Joseph Y. Ting: Dr. Ting worked as a medical physicist in Florida. He filed a False Claims Act lawsuit accusing 21st Century Oncology of ripping off Medicare.

21st Century Oncology eventually settled with the US Department of Justice to pay back $34.7 million to the US Treasury. In 2016, Dr. Ting and his legal team were awarded over $7 million for his role in the settlement.

2013 – Edward Snowden: Snowden was a Booz Allen Hamilton contractor working at the National Security Agency (NSA) in the United States. He released classified material on top-secret NSA programs, including the PRISM surveillance program to The Washington Post and The Guardian in 2013. He currently lives in Russia, which granted him temporary asylum.

Jim Wetta - WhistleblowerOn his Twitter account, Jim Wetta, a well-known whistleblower, writes that he: “successfully filed two False Claims Cases against two pharmaceutical companies. With the help of the DOJ, both cases settled reaching over $2 Billion.” (Image: Twitter)

2010 – Jim Wetta: Wetta was an AstraZeneca whistleblower. He filed a False Claims qui-tam case that triggered the US Department of Justice investigation into AstraZeneca – a British multinational pharmaceutical giant – for violating the Federal Anti-Kickback Statute promoting the unapproved use of the drug Seroquel, an anti-psychotic.

Eventually, in a civil settlement, AstraZeneca had to pay $520 million to the federal government to resolve civil settlements.

2009 – Alexander Barankov: – he claimed there was corruption within the Belorussian police force. In 2009, he was charged with bribery and fraud. He became a political refugee in Ecuador in 2012.

Ramin PourandarjaniBeing a whistleblower cost Dr. Ramin Pourandarjani (1983-2009) his life. During the 2009 Iranian election protests, he had examined prisoners, as well as people who had been wounded or killed. He blew the whistle on the practice of torture by the Iranian police. He died of poisoning – his salad had been laced with an overdose of a blood pressure medication. (Image: flickriver.com)

2009 – Ramin Pourandarjani: an Iranian medical doctor who reported on the use of torture on political prisoners in his country. Shortly thereafter he died of poisoning.

2009 – Hervé Falciani: a Franco-Italian systems engineer who is behind the ‘biggest banking leak in history’. In 2008, he started collaborating with a number of European countries by providing allegedly illegal stolen data relating to over 130,000 suspected tax evaders with accounts at HSBC’s Swiss subsidiary HSBC Private Bank.

20005 – Paul Moore: was an executive at HBOS, a British bank. He was fired after he warned senior colleagues that the bank’s sales strategy was at odds with prudent management.

He spoke out about his warnings to the Treasury Select Committee of the British Parliament during its investigation into the turmoil in the country’s banking system.

2005 – Shanmughan Manjunath: a former manager at IOCL (Indian Oil Corporation Ltd.). He spoke against the adulteration of gasoline. On November 19th, 2005, he was shot dead, allegedly by a gas station owner from Uttar Pradesh.

2005 – Toni Hoffman: a senior nurse in Australia who exposed the medical malpractice of surgeon Jayant Patel. At first, she raised doubts about Dr. Patel with other staff and hospital management. Patel’s colleagues were also concerned.

Dr. Patel became the subject of the Morris Inquiry and the Davies Commission. In 2006, Hoffman received the Australian of the Year Local Hero Award and an Order of Australia Medal for her role as a whistleblower.

2003 – Diane Urquhart: a former senior executive in the securities industry, she revealed to the Canadian House of Common’s Finance Committee that Canadian frozen non-bank asset-backed commercial paper caused a giant loss of up to $13 billion. The commercial papers were held primarily by the Canadian government, treasuries, and corporate pension funds.

1998 – Marc Hodler: was an International Olympic Committee member who blew the whistle on the Winter Olympic sandal for the Salt Lake City games (2002).

1997 – David Shayler & Annie Machon: they both resigned from MI5, the United Kingdom’s domestic counter-intelligence and security agency, to expose alleged criminal acts by the agency, including the failed attempt to assassinate Muammar Gaddafi.

Shayler claimed that the Security Services planted fake news in the press – this accusation was substantiated in one example by a court.

1996 – Allan Cutler: the first whistleblower on the Canadian sponsorship scandal or ‘AdScam’. As there was no legal protection at the time, he was soon fired by the Canadian government.

As the case evolved, lawmakers passed federal legislation to protect future whistleblowers in the country’s civil service.

Tobacco company whistleblower and film made about himJeffrey Wigand let it be publicly known that tobacco companies manipulated the nicotine content of cigarettes in order to get smokers more strongly hooked. He currently lectures around the world as an expert witness and consultant for a number of tobacco issues. He spends much of his time working for his non-profit organization ‘Smoke-Free Kids Inc.’ He was portrayed by Russell Crowe in the 1999 movie – The Insider – directed by Michael Mann, which also starred Christopher Plummer and Al Pacino. (Image: Jeffrey Wigand – Wikipedia. Russell Crowe – avclub.com)

1996 – Jeffrey Wigand: an American biochemist who was once Vice-President of R&D at Brown & Williamson in Louisville, Kentucky. He worked on developing reduced-harm cigarettes.

On a CBS News program 60 Minutes in 1996, he accused the company of deliberately manipulating levels of nicotine in cigarettes to make smokers more addicted.

According to Wigand, he was subsequently harassed and received several anonymous death threats. Actor Russel Crowe portrayed him in the 1999 movie The Insider.

1998 – Peter Wright: a former MI5 science officer who claimed in a book he wrote – Spycatcher – that the British Security Service had plotted to remove Prime Minister Harold Wilson from office, and that the MI5 Director General was a Soviet spy.

The book was published in Australia. The British government tried to prevent its publication in the UK, but eventually in 1998 it was cleared for publication – the Law Lords acknowledged that as it had already been published abroad, it no longer contained any state secrets.

1972 – W. Mark Felt: until 2005, he was known only as Deep Throat. He was Associate Director of the FBI when he leaked information about the then President of the United States Richard Nixon’s involvement in the Watergate scandal.

The scandal eventually led to the President’s resignation and prison terms for Presidential Adviser John Ehrlichman and White House Chief of Staff H. R. Haldeman.

1971 – Frank Serpico: a former New York City policeman who reported many of his fellow officers for corruption, bribery and related charges in front of the Knapp Commission that was probing corruption within the New York Police Department (NYPD).

He was the first NYPD officer ever to step forward to report and then testify openly about widespread, systemic corruption payoffs amounting to many millions of dollars. In 1973, Al Pacino starred in the blockbuster movie Serpico

1942 – Jan Karski: a Polish resistance fighter who visited the Warsaw ghetto twice during WWII. He met with US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the British Foreign Secretary, and the Polish Shadow Government in London, to report what he had seen concerning the horrific conditions for Jewish people, as well as the extermination camps. Sadly (tragically), none of what he said was taken seriously.

1515-1552 – Bartolomé de las Casas: a 16th-century Spanish historian, social reformer and Dominican friar. Before King Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, he advocated on behalf of the rights for the natives in the New World.

Video – What is a Whistleblower?

This video is from Marketing Business Network, our sister channel in YouTube. It explains the meaning of Whistleblower using easy-to-understand terms and examples.