A whistleblower is an employee who reports misconduct to a person or agency that has the power to take corrective action. Generally, the misconduct is a violation of law and is a threat to the public good. Frequent threats to the public sphere include financial fraud, health or safety violations, and corruption. The most common type of whistleblower is an internal complainer and involves relatively minor infractions of the law. Other types include external whistleblowers who report the misconduct to outside person or agency, including lawyers, the media, law enforcement, or watchdog groups.
One of the most famous whistleblowing cases in the United States involved Jeffrey Wigand and the tobacco industry in the early 1990's. After learning that executives knew cigarettes were addictive and still approved the addition of other carcinogenic ingredients, Wigand alerted the media about the company's choices. Although Wigand lost his job, his actions changed the way the tobacco industry operates. Other famous cases include Dr. Frederic Whitehurst, who exposed problems in the FBI's crime lab and Paul van Buitenen's disclosure of misconduct within the European Commission.
Reactions to whistleblowers vary depending on the subject of their complaint and their method of disclosure. Some people see their divulgence as an act of a selfless martyr, unconcerned for their own welfare when the public good is in jeopardy. People who blow the whistle commonly lose their job and find that their future employment opportunities are threatened. Other opinions involve whistleblowers as snitches or tattletales, who expose their employers for personal fame and glory.
Protection for whistleblowers does exist in the United States. Legal defenses for employees who blow the whistle vary according to the subject matter and state in which the case arises. In 2002, the Sarbanes-Oxley Act found that protection was dependent on the “patchwork and vagaries" of individual state laws. Despite this conclusion, several laws help protect people who expose company misconduct. The Toxic Substances Control Act, Clean Air Act, Energy Reorganization Act of 1974, and Sarbanes-Oxley Act all include employee defense sections. Other safeguards include the Military Whistleblower Protection Act and the No FEAR Act.
Employees who blow the whistle are often subject to punishment if their reported misconduct is not received well. Unfortunately, common consequences include termination, suspension, demotion, and harsh mistreatment by coworkers or bosses.
If you are interested in learning more about legal treatment and protection, this whistleblower website contains useful information.