To blow or not to blow? That is the question.
In a world where critical information is increasingly digitised and less secure, people who work in organisations where they know ethical or legal wrongdoing is taking place are more often facing the question of whether to blow the whistle or keep quiet.
The answer often lies in whether the wrongdoing is harming the public good or has the potential to do so, in the government’s eyes.
When the whistle-blower exposes conduct that the government believes is fraudulent or criminal, he is immune from termination.
According to the United Kingdom’s government, workers covered include employees, such as office or factory workers, police officers or NHS employees.
Such employees cannot be gagged by confidentiality agreements stipulated in settlements. Complaints protected by the UK’s whistle-blower laws include:
Criminal offences, e.g. fraud
- A person’s health or safety is jeopardised
- The environment has been harmed or is at risk of damage
- The employer is violating the law in some way.
Sounds easy, right? You see something wrong and you blow the whistle by going to the government or the press. But there are risks. Even if the law seems to be on the whistle-blower’s side, employers can blackball the individual, making future employment in the field hard to find. Although the whistle-blower might be entitled to keep his job, the employer can make life on the job miserable (e.g. scheduling and work environment), or at least less than optimal.
But in the United States, such problems are sometimes mitigated by lucrative cash rewards paid by the government. The False Claims Act allows whistle-blowers who alert the government to fraudulent claims made against it, typically by federal contractors. The law dates back to 1863 when Congress was concerned about contractors overcharging the Union Army for supplies during the Civil War, and was updated in 1986 to increase cash rewards whistle-blowers can receive from double to treble damages, and raise penalties from $2,000 per false claim to a range of $5,000 to $10,000 per claim.
In 2012, four whistle-blowers shared a $250 million payout (£161 million) for exposing fraud by Britain’s biggest pharmaceutical maker, GlaxoSmithKline. Because the U.S. government buys so much medicine from Glaxo, its Department of Justice fined the company about $3 billion for allegedly giving doctors gifts, such as getaway vacations to exotic locales, in exchange for their agreements to prescribe its drugs to patients for whom the U.S. Food and Drug Administration had not given approval.
The UK, in 2014, considered offering such cash incentives to whistle-blowers but ultimately decided against it, concluding they have no real impact on the amount of whistleblowing that takes place.
But what happens when the question of wrongdoing is not so cut and dried? In the WikiLeaks case, former US Army Private First Class Bradley Manning, an intelligence analyst, was sentenced to 35 years in prison in 2013 for leaking classified information. National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden is living in exile in Russia to avoid facing trial in the United States for his disclosure of classified documents to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.
While the government is incredibly angry with Manning and Snowden, some people consider them national heroes, especially Snowden, who has exposed the government’s highly controversial program where innocent civilians’ communications was subjected to surveillance in its war on terror.