Understanding the Mind of a Whistleblower

What motivates a person to do the right thing in the face of opposition? How do people know which path to take when faced with a conflict of interest? These questions are the subject of philosophical debates, timeless works of fiction and endless scientific research.

We often ask ourselves how we might respond to an ethical conundrum. If you’ve ever taken an ethics course, then you’ve probably mulled over hypothetical situations like would you report a family member for committing a crime? or would you hire a friend over a more qualified employee if you oversaw hiring for your business?

These types of questions are often posed in the abstract, but thousands of Americans face real-life dilemmas every day. Whistleblowers are people who have made the decision to report wrongdoing that they have witnessed. These individuals have typically weighed the consequences of their actions and determined that speaking out against wrongdoing is the best option.

Whistleblower LawyerWhat informs the decisions of a whistleblower? Several studies have tackled this issue and, while concrete answers to these questions are often elusive, there are several things that whistleblowers have in common, whether those characteristics are personal qualities or situational similarities.

Whistleblowers come in all shapes and sizes. There’s no rule that says a whistleblower must belong to a certain demographic, gender, age or personality type. However, there are often similarities in how whistleblowers perceive the wrongdoing they’ve witnessed and even some characteristics that indicate a person is more likely to be a whistleblower.

Below, we’ll look at some of the most common characteristics of a whistleblower. Our information is based on a paper by authors from Boston College and Northwestern University, a Huffington Post interview with a professor at Kelley School of Business at Indiana University and a thesis submitted to Boston College, all of which are informed by other extensive bodies of research on the psychology of whistleblowers.

Strong Sense of Fairness

Whistleblowers tend to value fairness very highly. Thus, they are often motivated by strong professional values and ideological beliefs. They have highly developed belief systems that inform their decision to come forward about wrongdoing. A sense of fairness can also be cultivated by the organization to which a person belongs or a personal background that has instilled an inherent sense of right and wrong.

Willingness to Break Norms of Conformity

Whistleblowers often face backlash from their employers or from other coworkers at their job, so they often blow the whistle in the face of groupthink and conformity. It’s not that whistleblowers aren’t loyal or likely to conform, but their sense of fairness is simply weighted more heavily than their willingness to do nothing about the wrongdoing they’ve witnessed.

Willingness to Exercise Control

People with higher status in their workplace are more likely to blow the whistle. They are also more likely to be high performers, which could correlate to their elevated position at work. Lower-level employees with less job security might be less likely to blow the whistle on wrongdoing, either from fear of losing their job or because they feel more intimidated by the judgement of coworkers.

It’s also worth noting that someone who has a higher job status might be privy to more information and to notice when some form of fraud, abuse or waste is occurring. They might also be more financially secure and, therefore, willing to speak out in the face of possible financial consequences.

Other Possible Characteristics

Other common characteristics of a typical whistleblower might appear to be random, such as the fact that middle-aged, married people are more likely to blow the whistle on wrongdoing. However, these characteristics are in keeping with the idea that whistleblowers have more security and support in their personal lives. By contrast, a younger employee might not be as likely to notice wrongdoing because they lack the experience, or because they have yet to attain a level of occupational control that empowers them to speak up.

Not surprisingly, whistleblowers are more likely to be proactive than those who remain silent. Blowing the whistle is not an easy thing to do. It is usually the result of several difficult decisions and must be inspired by a willingness to take definitive action at the risk of professional and personal consequences.

Why Organizations Should Encourage Whistleblowing

Understanding what motivates whistleblowers should be of interest to managers, business owners and those in control of large organizations. Encouraging transparency and dissent in an organization is a key for success. It promotes innovation, prevents wrongdoing within the organization and improves group performance.

Whistleblowers should be encouraged by organizations. Unfortunately, many organizations actively discriminate against those willing to speak up about things that they find troubling. When a business or organization fails to embrace dissent and whistleblowing within their own business, it is also more likely to host fraud, abuse or waste.

Most whistleblowers attempt to report problems internally before they report it to a third party. It is only after an organization discourages internal whistleblowing or retaliates against a whistleblower that they open themselves up to external investigations and potential legal or financial consequences.

Why Whistleblowers Speak Out

Whistleblowers often have a value system that guides their way, but the specific reasons they come forward about wrongdoing varies from one case to another. Some whistleblowers do what they do for the greater good. Others might speak out because they want to preserve the integrity of the organization. Deciding to blow the whistle is a highly personal decision, and it is done for many reasons.

While most whistleblowers are motivated by a sense of right and wrong, their decision to speak out can be aided, at least in part, by the potential of a reward. Creating a reward for someone to blow the whistle is a practice that businesses should encourage, and it has been highly effective on both the state and federal level.

Our laws offer witnesses of fraud, abuse or waste against the government a percentage of the recovered amount if they provide valuable, unique information to the authorities. This reward might not be the sole reason a person comes forward, but it provides a powerful incentive for those who might otherwise be on the fence about whether they should blow the whistle.

If you have witnessed wrongdoing and want to learn more about filing a claim on behalf of the government, contact whistleblower attorney Bert Louthian to learn more about your options.


Request Consultation