A whistleblower is a person who discloses information about fraudulent or illegal activities. These reports are related to the common good, such as the public interest, local community, or work environment, and result from a sense of responsibility for others. It is crucial that a whistleblower always acts with good intentions and not in their own interest. The motivation of whistleblowers is their sensitivity to unethical or illegal behavior, disagreement with pathologies, misdemeanors, and even crimes. A report of violations revealed by a whistleblower is expected to be true and factual.
A person who intends to disclose abuse must feel safe and should not be afraid of losing their job, position, or other types of harassment. Therefore, the organization must implement a tool for efficient and safe communication with whistleblowers. The reporting channel must be dedicated to this purpose, independent, but also widely available because not only employees can become whistleblowers but also suppliers, customers, or contractors.
The report from informants may be sent to persons responsible in the company's structures for broadly understood compliance, company authorities, law enforcement agencies, representatives of local authorities, and even the government, depending on the scale of the revealed breach.
Whistleblowers don’t have to be afraid of any form of retaliation. Although they can act anonymously, their best guarantee is law protection.
Origin of the “whistleblower” term
The first use of the term "whistleblower" (whistle blower or whistle-blower) dates back to the 19th century. Whistles were widely used by officers when chasing criminals, especially in public places. In this way, they attracted the attention of passers-by and nearby patrols. Whistles were also utilized in sports to signal a player's foul. Literally speaking, whistleblowing means whistling. In the 1970s, human rights activist Ralph Nader began using the term in the context of disclosing breaches to distinguish it from negatively perceived words such as “informer” or “snitch”.
Over the years, the term has become widespread due to journalists and activists. It also lost its hyphen coming from whistle-blower to whistleblower. Today, we use the word whistleblower in a positive way to describe a brave and honorable person who stands up to unacceptable practices. Positive perception can also be attributed to many books and movies about whistleblowers, which were created over the last decades. The plots are often true-life based, telling people's real stories.
Many famous whistleblowers reported breaches related to the business activities of their employers: Frances Haugen from Facebook or Peiter Zatko from Twitter. Others were driven by objection to fraudulent and life-threatening activities putting human health in danger: Erika Cheung and Tyler Shultz at Theranos and Jeffrey Wigand at a big tobacco company. The most famous global scandals revealed by whistleblowers undoubtedly are attributed to Edward Snowden and Mark Felt, who opposed the shady surveillance practices of the US government.
The birth of whistleblowing laws
The first whistleblower act was signed in the United States on August 24, 1912. It is considered to be the beginning of the law protecting whistleblowers. This law, known as the “Lloyd-La Follette Act”, at the time only applied to government employees. Due to this document, they were able to contact Congress or members of the commission dealing with violations of the law directly.
In the following years, from 1972 to 1990, the US passed a number of laws that expanded the area of legal activity of whistleblowers. During this time, whistleblowers got safety guarantees as long as their reports were concerned with disclosing information about environmental danger, such as air, water, or soil pollution. The whistleblowers' protection act covered not only the US government officials but also employees of companies who reported abuses of impact on the natural environment.
In July 1998, the UK government signed the whistleblower safety act, dubbed the "Public Interest Disclosure Act". It protected bona fide employees who reported law violations at their companies - all in the public interest. Owing to this regulation, employees did not have to be afraid of repressive and often illegal retaliation by the employer.
In July 2002, the US Congress passed a law regulating financial practices and corporate governance. This event was the aftermath of scandals related to companies such as Enron and WorldCom. These financial scandals broke out in the USA and shook the national economy. As a result, a huge loss of investors' confidence in all financial entities, such as investment advisors, auditors, or management boards of listed companies appeared. Therefore, the act on the whistleblowers' protection was aimed at reducing fraud and restoring order and trust in the institutions belonging to the financial sector.
In October 2019, the European Union introduced the Directive on the protection of persons who report breaches of Union law.