Whistleblowers – Brave Heroes or Social Outcasts?

The word ‘whistleblower’ has re-entered my life. I hate this word with a passion.

In the school playground, whistleblowing is called ‘sneaking’. As a sneak, you are the person who has reported the misbehaviour of your schoolmates to the teachers. You cannot be trusted. You have behaved in a furtive, underhand way. You are left isolated, alone and friendless (every child’s worst nightmare). You are contemptible.

In the criminal world, you are a ‘snitch’ or ‘grass’ (derived from ‘snake in the grass’).  You have reported the criminal activities of others to the police. You are an informant. And you are in grave danger. In retaliation, you risk being kneecapped, ‘tarred and feathered’ or killed. You are worse than contemptible. You could be dead.

But, in the wider world between the school playground and the criminal underground, isn’t ‘whistleblowing’ a good thing?

For reasons I will come to later, whistleblowing is an aspect of human behaviour that is of particular interest to me. I like to learn about people who have been placed in a dilemma where their social conscience has been challenged to the extent they feel forced to, it says here, ‘make public exposure of corruption or wrongdoing’.

In February, I read the obituary of an American rocket engineer called Roger Boisjoly ‘whose warnings of catastrophe on the eve of the Challenger disaster went unheeded’.

Working for the company that made the booster rockets for the Challenger Space Shuttle, Boisjoly spotted a design fault that he investigated and reported to his company and NASA. The problem was that in cold temperatures the rubber sealing rings stiffened and became more likely to fail. ‘The result,’ he warned, ‘could be a catastrophe of the highest order.’

Roger Boisjoly’s findings were ignored. Shortly after take-off, the spacecraft exploded killing all seven crew members. You can read the full obituary here.

Then – and this is the social dynamic I hate – get this: 

‘In the days, months and years after the Challenger disaster, Boisjoly experienced intense feelings of guilt and depression. Recovery was not helped by the fact that many in the business he loved rejected him as an unwelcome whistle-blower.’

Isn’t that dreadful? 

What did Roger Boisjoly do wrong? Why did he feel ‘guilt and depression’? Why was he ‘rejected’?

I take a completely contrary view. I would like to declare that I admire and honour Roger Boisjoly. I had not heard of him until I read his obituary but, to me, Roger Boisjoly is a hero. May he rest in peace.

Whistleblowing also occurs in business. The lead story in the March issue of Management Today featured Michael Woodford, ‘Britain’s highest profile whistleblower’, who was ‘sacked as Chief Executive by the Olympus board for refusing to keep quiet about hundreds of millions of dollars of corrupt payments by the high-tech opticals maker’.

The full story is here but, again, get this:

‘And what of Woodford himself? A whistleblower’s future is often a difficult and lonely one. Ejected from one pack, Woodford is now a lone wolf in his Thames lair. He has been to head-hunters, but it would be a bold gamble for a big corporation to hire him for a senior management role. It would probably worry that such a highly principled individual, however talented and cash generating, would prove a source of trouble.’

Isn’t that dreadful?

And why am I, Hugh Salmon, so interested in the subject of whistleblowing? Why do I feel so strongly? Why do I get so emotional?

It is because, as long ago as October 1998, I featured in a lead story about whistleblowing in the very same magazine, Management Today. The full story is here. (Please do not think I am trying to paint myself as a hero – frankly, in my case, I didn’t think I had much option).

It seems, from Michael Woodford’s case, that in the last thirteen years (despite the best efforts of a worthy charity called Public Concern at Work), nothing has changed.

And this makes me really angry.

As I have discussed before, the biggest challenge we face in the world today is how to make capitalism work for the good of society as a whole.

Surely, in this day and age, if whistleblowers expose financial wrongdoing, they should be encouraged not rejected, welcomed not isolated, applauded not reviled?

It might be that we need a more positive word than ‘whistleblower’.

How about ‘honest broker’?

About Hugh Salmon

Business leader. Adman. Writer.
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2 Responses to Whistleblowers – Brave Heroes or Social Outcasts?

  1. Hugh Salmon says:

    ‘Olympus yesterday confirmed it paid £10million to buy the silence of its former president who blew the whistle on a £1.1billion accounting scandal.
    ‘To buy the silence’. Huh? Another cover up?

  2. Hugh Salmon says:

    ‘NHS chief Gary Walker gagged.
    The former head of an NHS Trust has been paid more than £500,000, including legal costs, as part of a severance deal which also stops him discussing patient safety, the BBC has learned.’
    ‘Stops him discussing patient safety’. Huh?

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