Whistleblowers: Broken Lives and Organizational Power,
C. Fred Alford, Ithaca and London: Cornell Univ. Press, 2001, 170
"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
paints a picture of the way organizations behave when confronted
by an outspoken member who has observed organizational misconductand
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." 
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:
- Never go around your boss
- Tell your boss what he wants to hear
- Drop what the boss wants dropped
- Anticipate what the boss wants
- 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
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
 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
An earlier, abbreviated version of this book review appeared in
the July 2001 issue Ethical Management. For another
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