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Chapter 19

WHISTLEBLOWING AND ITS QUANDARIES

Robert Jackall
Introduction
• Whistleblowers are men and women who publicly call
individuals in their own organizations to account for
behavior that they, the whistleblowers, deem
inappropriate by some standard.
• The metaphor that the word invokes – that of a referee
in striped shirt who enforces agreed-upon rules in a
football or basketball game – is misleading. Instead,
whenever one calls attention to others’ perceived
“wrongdoing” in big organizations, one finds oneself in
a tar pit of “sticky situation” or quandaries.
• Aim of this chapter is to reflect on main confusions
related to this phenomenon.

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Introduction

1)
• It’s often difficult to ascertain responsibility for wrongdoing in large
bureaucracies.
• The complicated division of authority that marks all large organizations
separates most actors from the consequences of their actions. It cut off the
highest authorities from accounting for any problems that their
organizations create.
• Plausible deniability is part and parcel of these fragmented authority
structures.
• If actors have networked well – a prerequisite for survival, let alone success,
in the bureaucratic organizations – they can count on loyal allies and
subordinates to protect them in bad situations.
• Moreover, if things go drastically wrong, a boss can always blame his
underlings for poor judgment.
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Introduction

2)
• Such deniability is enhanced by the constant doublethink, doublespeak, backing and
filling, and systematic “confusion” that characterize organizational actors’ public speech
to both internal and external audiences about their work, their institutions, and
especially any of their own decisions that might prove problematic.
• All bureaucracies in every institutional arena have elaborate written codes of ethics
crafted by attorneys, etc. Nevertheless, and in the corporate world, formal guidelines
have little to do with day-to-day behavior, and all corporate players know it.
• Instead, the moral rules-in-use that emerge directly out of a specific milieu’s particular
culture shape day-to-day behavior.
• These rules-in-use regularly conflict with corporate actors’ necessary public embrace of
abstract virtues (i.e. written codes of ethics, etc.)
• Thus, men and women in big corporations strive to do “what has to be done” while
maintaining the public appearance of moral integrity.

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Introduction
3)
• Even when there are relatively clear-cut instances of wrongdoing, rules of
etiquette and protocol restrict the choice to draw attention to them effectively.
4)
• All big organizations consist ultimately of thick social networks of men and women,
each possessing elaborate cognitive maps of the organizational biographies of all
players at their own level and above.
• When one chooses to point out the wrongdoing of colleagues, or especially that of
superiors, one inevitably brings to mind these intricate affiliations and the
prevailing commonsensical moral rules-in-use as not to jeoperdize the established
social order.
• Solution is to act as watchwords advance: “Don’t rock the boat.”; “Go along to get
along.”; “Do what you’re told to do, and keep your mouth shut.”
• In other words, even when men and women have direct knowledge of catastrophic
mistakes, most choose to turn a blind eye to such abuses in order to “live and let
live.”

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Introduction
5)
• The profound intellectual and moral confusion that saturates American society prevents
many men and women from achieving the clear-mindedness necessary to see where
bright lines are drawn, when and how others have crossed them, and what to do about
it.
• Affirmation of the wrongdoing of a colleague or superior is considered “judgmental,”
and is thought to be a character defect in the person making the assertion.
• Whistleblowers face not only the problem of how to convince others of the truth of
what they’ve observed, but also how to argue against the mass of moralistic confusions
that pervade the public sphere of our society.
• Some whistleblowers turn to the all-powerful media to expose wrongdoing in their
organizations, always a dangerous tactic. At times, this is done through “leaks.”
• Finally, we can say that blowing the whistle is a lonely business, even when one has
definitive evidence against colleagues or superiors. Whistleblowing demands the
stomach for controversy and the willingness to subject oneself to one’s colleagues’
enduring suspicions.

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