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Ethics & Policy Book Reviews 12 June 2000, rev. 21 March 2002

Whistleblowers: Broken Lives and Organizational Power, C. Fred Alford, Ithaca and London: Cornell Univ. Press, 2001, 170 pp.

"To be a whistleblower," writes C. Fred Alford, "is to step outside the Great Chain of Being, to join not just another religion, but another world. Sometimes this other world is called the margins of society, but to the whistleblower it feels like outer space."

Alford paints a picture of the way organizations behave when confronted by an outspoken member who has observed organizational misconduct—and the rationalizations of its members who remain silent. The picture he paints is sobering, even troubling.

There are many books telling the stories of whistleblowers, of course. Indeed, the news and analyses surrounding the collapse of Enron make frequent reference to whistleblowing. But Alford's study of the stories of whistleblowers may be unique in telling the reader more about the power of organizations-and the character of their members who remain silent-than about the rare few who do speak up.

Who is a whistleblower?

In common parlance, any member of an organization who speaks out about it in the name of the public good is a whistleblower. Some commentators include those who speak up within the organization itself. In practice, Alford opines, the whistleblower is defined less by having spoken out or up than by the retaliation he or she receives. Rarely, for example, are employees fired for reporting the behavior of subordinates. It is usually when the whistleblower implicates a superior or superiors that retaliation turns him or her into a whistleblower.

Supporting the broader definition of "whistleblower," Alford notes that the whistleblower need not go public to get into trouble with the organization. Merely mentioning his or her concerns brings an unwelcome public inside the organization. This, he tells us, is the only unforgivable organizational sin, to become "the outside on the inside." [1]

Alford's work, then, is less a study of whistleblowers than of their narratives: the stories they tell about what they learned after whistleblowing. From these tales, he searches for the answer to his own question: "What does the organization look like from the perspective of someone who has been forcibly relocated to [another] world?"

Whistleblowers and their Organizations

Alford draws a picture of the organization as an essentially feudal entity. Power is both decentralized and personal. Broad organizational purposes are subsumed into the purposes of the boss. Robert Jackall succinctly captured this essence earlier in his classic study of organizational life, Moral Mazes: The World of Corporate Managers:

  1. Never go around your boss
  2. Tell your boss what he wants to hear
  3. Drop what the boss wants dropped
  4. Anticipate what the boss wants
  5. Not only do not report, but cover up what the boss wants unreported

Whistleblowers takes the story from there. As Alford explores the characteristics of whistleblowers, he draws forth, by comparison and contrast, the characteristics of their organizations-and those people who remain silent. Alford finds that whistleblowers differ from colleagues, with whom they once shared so much of their lives, in their loyalty to personal concepts of the ideal self. For a variety of reasons he explores in detail, whistleblowers are unable to deal with their organizations-and live with themselves-when they stray from their public purposes. Prominent among these reasons, whistleblowers talk about shame. One whistleblower felt shame at being an employee of an agency that no longer cared about the public.

What we learn about organizations from their whistleblowers

The organization creates the whistleblower by its responses. By retaliating, the organization declares that there is a certain type of person it cannot stand in its midst. This person is not so much one who goes outside the organization. Rather, the whistleblower is one who appears to remember that there is an outside. To be a whistleblower, then, is to assert the social conscience in the midst of the organization. To be a whistleblower is to set one way of thinking about the sacred, the conscience collective, against another sacred element, power. Only when we understand this inherent conflict will we truly understand what is going on with the whistleblower. Only when we understand this inherent conflict will we truly understand what is going on in our organizations.

The organization, Alford concludes, is constitutionally unable to deal with insiders who challenge its sense of self-sufficiency (autarky). Taking misconduct public, or even bringing concerns of the public inside the organization, challenges this sense. When the ideal self confronts the organization's desire to be self-sufficient, the whistleblower must make the "choiceless choice" and risk sacrificing career, home, and family to stay true to self. In sum, whistleblowers blow the whistle because they dread living with a corrupted self more than they dread the isolation from others.

What we learn about those who remain behind

"Particularly insidious," Alford declares, "is the way the organization transforms responsibility to family into a justification for anything." Here Alford traces the silent member's sacrificing "his [sic] beliefs, his [sic] honor, and his [sic] human dignity" to avoid the consequences of speaking up. In practice, this sacrifice of belief, honor, and human dignity means "loyalty to family becomes loyalty to boss."

Where responsibility for one's family is the highest standard, Alford continues, "there is nothing one would not do for one's boss...." In a particularly telling statement, he concludes, "To succor oneself with the thought that one will do anything for one's family is tantamount to saying one will do anything: anything the boss says, to anyone he says to do it to. To think this way is to become completely irresponsible to the world." (emphasis added)

Conclusion

Alford describes organizations as willingly sacrificing outspoken individuals in the belief that group cohesion depends upon their willingness to destroy their members in order to preserve their illusion of self-sufficiency. This desire to maintain such an illusion may explain other failures to speak up or out. For example, federal officials recently reported that HMOs and hospitals often fail to follow federal law requiring them to identify inept doctors. This failure to report is in the face of between 44,000 and 98,000 Americans dying each year from medical errors. Moreover, while much is made of Sherron Watkins' speaking up about Enron irregularities, what of the many other Enron employees who were reportedly aware that much was amiss at Enron, but remained silent? Their silence should be the bigger, more telling story.

Whistleblowers is an important book that deserves careful reading and, perhaps more importantly, thoughtful dialogue. If Alford's description is accurate, it calls into question many of the assumptions underlying ethics theory in general-and many organizational ethics and compliance programs in particular. It also brings into substantial question legislation intended to protect those having the courage to speak out-whistleblowers.

If the nature of the organization is to avoid bringing considerations of public welfare inside the organization, legislative protection for whistleblowers alone will never be enough. Much more should be demanded of corporate governance, leadership, and organizational ethics and compliance programs, if they are to be effective at achieving shared organizational purposes and protecting the public. Moreover, the importance of shaping corporate cultures to encourage openness and responsibility becomes all the more obvious and challenging.

Kenneth W. Johnson

[1] Ethics Resource Center research supports Alford's findings. In its recent nationwide survey of employees about workplace ethics, employees at all levels maintained that they can more readily report the misconduct of those below their own level without fear of negative consequences than they can report the misconduct of those at or above their levels. Indeed, about one in three employees feared retaliation from coworkers as much as they feared retaliation from management. Joshua Joseph, Ethics Resource Center's 2003 National Business Ethics Survey: Volume I, Chapter 5. See Ethics Resource Center

An earlier, abbreviated version of this book review appeared in the July 2001 issue Ethical Management. For another review, click here.

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