Whistle Blowing

Pattern number within this pattern set: 
Tom Carpenter
Douglas Schuler
Public Sphere Project

Corporations may flaunt legal or ethical guidelines by, for example, ignoring safety considerations on the job, harassing employees, or dumping toxic chemicals. Governments also engage in a multitude of transgressions from the minor to the truly horrific. Many of these misdeeds are kept secret, cloistered within a strict organizational "code of silence." "Whistle blowing" is an American expression for exposing problems within an organization from within that organization. The act of whistle blowing is essential to correcting problems in society, yet the whistle blowers are often punished severely for their actions. Society benefits from — but does not adequately protect — the whistle blower.


This pattern can be used by anybody who finds themselves in possession of knowledge that is being kept secret when it should be made public. People who aren't in this position — journalists and "ordinary citizens," for example — can also use this pattern to support the people who are in this position.


Whistle blowers are often heroes of the modern world who undergo a mighty — and sometimes ultimate — sacrifice for the good of the rest of society. Tom Devine of the Government Accountability Project (GAP) wrote a thoughtful and informative book which contains useful advice on how whistle blowers can "blow the whistle" on wrongdoing — without becoming martyrs in the process.

Powerful (and not-so-powerful) institutions and organizations may engage in a variety of unethical or illegal activities to further their own goals — at least as perceived by the perpetrators of the activities. These acts are kept hidden from those on the outside until such time as they are uncovered by somebody on the outside or exposed by somebody on the inside. The pressures on an "insider" to keep quiet about the transgression are immense. Although society as a whole benefits from the new revelations, the whistle-blower is likely to be seen as a traitor to his or her community and punished heartily for his or her efforts; He or she could be shunned at work, fired, "black-balled" (denied employment in general in the future) , or, even, physically harmed. Of course, even after it's revealed to the world, the damaging evidence can be ignored by the media or spun into irrelevance by the institution and its allies.

In a section called "Blowing the Whistle Wisely", Devine discusses "basic survival strategies" which are listed below.

  1. Before taking any irreversible steps, talk to your family or close friends about your decision to blow the whistle.
  2. Develop a plan so that your employer is reacting to you, instead of vice-versa.
  3. Be alert and discretely attempt to learn of any other people who are upset about the wrongdoing.
  4. Before formally breaking ranks, consider whether there is any reasonable way to work within the system by going to the first level of authority.
  5. Maintain good relations with administrative and support staff.
  6. Before and after you blow the whistle, it is very important to protect yourself by keeping a careful record of events as they unfold.
  7. Identify and copy all necessary supporting records before drawing any attention to your concerns.
  8. Research and identify potential allies such as elected officials, journalists or activists who have proven their sincerity and can help expose the wrongdoing.
  9. Either invest the funds for a legal opinion from a competent lawyer, or talk to a non-profit watchdog organization about the risks and obstacles facing you.
  10. Always be on guard not to embellish your charges.
  11. Engage in whistleblowing initiatives on your own time and with your own resources, not your employer's.
  12. Don't wear your cynicism on your sleeve when working with authorities.

Whistle blowing arises within government institutions as well as commercial concerns and, as a matter of fact, has some degree of legal protection — at least in some countries. One of the most important examples of government abuse include corruption, violation of human rights (by allowing torture, for example) or by hiding decisions, such as a decision to start a war while publicly asserting that peace is being sought. Some connect the concept of protecting whistle blowers with free speech rights secured by the 1st Amendment of the Constitution. Beyond a rights context, government transparency is necessary for a healthy democracy, in that accurate and timely information is vital for informed policy-making.

This pattern connotes the use of a whistle, as in the whistle of a police officer, to signal for help. Others have likened it to a train whistle, that sounds a warning upon approach to an intersection. In sports, the referee blows the whistle to stop game play.

The "whistle blowing" concept needs to be legitimized in different contexts, some of which are extremely hostile to the idea. In some cases it will be important to come up with new expressions in other languages to talk about the concept! In addition, the very term "whistle blower" does not translate well into other languages, such as Russian. It has been suggested that "truth-teller" may work better in that language than whistle-blower.


Support whistle blowing and whistle blowers. This is often done through support networks and by laws and media.

Verbiage for pattern card: 

Corporations may flaunt the law or ethical guidelines by harassing employees, ignoring safety considerations, or dumping toxics. Governments of course are also guilty of various crimes. Whistle Blowers expose problems by making hidden incidents or documents public. Although society benefits from Whistle Blowing, whistle-blowers are often punished for their efforts. There are many ways, however, to prevent whistle blowers from becoming martyrs.

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