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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

The Whistle-Blower's Quandary: Fairness or Loyalty

James O'Toole

A team of researchers recently published findings from a series of studies designed to shed light on the moral psychology of whistle-blowing and to discover ways to encourage or discourage the practice. They found that would be whistle-blowers faced a moral quandary: Is reporting misdeeds an act of heroism or betrayal?

When a group of people were asked to think about an occasion when they witnessed unethical behavior--and either reported, or did not report it—researchers found that the whistle blowers used ten times as many terms relating to fairness and justice (for example, "Someone was denied his or her right.") whereas the non-blowers used twice as many terms related to loyalty (for example, "Someone betrayed his or her group"). The researchers claim that, although fairness and loyalty are both basic moral values, some of us focus more on the former and others more on the latter. This is particularly true when research participants were faced with making tradeoffs between the two values. In sum, people who valued fairness more express greater willingness to blow the whistle when faced with ethical misbehavior than those who placed a higher value on loyalty.

The researchers conclude: "Our studies suggest that if you want to encourage whistle-blowing you might emphasize fairness in mission statements, codes of ethics, honor codes and ad campaigns. And to sway those who prize loyalty at all costs, you could reframe whistle-blowing as an act of 'larger loyalty' to the greater good. That way our moral values need not conflict."


In your experience, does the valuing of loyalty over fairness discourage employees from reporting unethical behavior? If not, what is the motivation for not reporting illegal or unethical actions, or what are other explanatory causes?

Are the researchers correct that organizations can change the behavior of potential whistle-blowers by emphasizing the language of justice and fairness, and by reframing the issue in terms of "greater loyalty"? Are there some other things that can be done?

Do you know of any instance in which whistle-blowing had a positive outcome for the whistle-blower? For example, can you think of a case in which a whistle-blower won praise, or even appreciation, for her efforts?

Does your organization really want to encourage people to blow the whistle on unethical behavior? Is there a difference between how blowing the whistle on a lower level employee is viewed, as opposed to blowing the whistle on executive misbehavior?

James O'Toole is senior fellow in business ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.

Nov 1, 2013