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Michelle Edmondson
PhD student, University of Cumbria
Article based upon webinar delivered January 2024

When considering how business psychology and whistleblowing can interact let’s start with a definition of whistleblowing, as this can be complex. A common and well used definition of whistleblowing defines it as “the disclosure by organisation members (former or current) of illegal, immoral or illegitimate practices under the control of their employers, to persons or organisations that may be able to affect action” (Near and Miceli, 1985, p.4). However, the term whistleblowing can also be used interchangeably with speaking up, raising a concern, or speaking out (McDonald and Ahern, 2000).

Whistleblowing is conceptually complex and there are different standpoints within academia, practice, and law. The whistleblowing literature is relatively new, mostly in business ethics. Juxtaposed with this is voice, business psychology/organisational behaviour and Human Resources/ Employee Relationship Management field s,all of which view whistleblowing slightly differently. Helpfully, Kenny et al., (2020) said: “Rather than trying to win a ‘turf war’, we assert that whistleblowing might best be conceived of as an escalating dynamic that can occur when voice mechanisms are not effective in bringing about change or are unsafe for those who use voice”. This is a helpful way of looking more holistically at whistleblowing terminology. A key component of the definition which is seen across all the academic fields is the action element – raising a concern in relation to wrongdoing to someone who can act, implying that you cannot do this alone.

In 1993 when Protect (formerly Public Concern at Work), a UK whistleblowing charity was created, it said: “[In 1993] whistleblowing was viewed very differently. Whistleblowers were largely seen as loners, mavericks, and even trouble-makers. And the idea of corporate whistleblowing with staff employed in roles dedicated to whistleblowing, was, well, quite frankly, light years away”. Times have changed and the media has portrayed whistleblowers in a positive light, for example with #metoo, CBI and the Post Office Horizon scandal. Those who speak up are starting to be viewed differently, seen as helpful, an early warning risk intelligence system, a way to improve organisations and an essential way for workers to speak to address serious wrongdoing. Yet some employees who speak up to challenge are seen as threatening and disloyal, and there is still stigma attached to blowing the whistle, with a lack of action in some areas.

Turning to the current context and legislation, the proposed Whistleblowing Bill calls for the Office of the Whistleblower (this is an Ombudsman role for example as seen in the Netherlands with the House of Whistleblower). The Department for Business and Trade are reviewing the Whistleblowing framework and an outcome report is expected imminently ( Other relevant legislation includes The Economic and Crime Act (2023) which covered whistleblowing in economic and financial situations.

In terms of operationalising whistleblowing, there are internal routes to blow the whistle (Line Manager, Compliance Officer, trusted colleague), or external routes (Hotline, agency, Trade Union, regulator, media). Some of the key challenges to whistleblowing are awareness and understanding of the process – employees may not know who to speak to or be confident in what will happen next – it is hard to speak up when you most need to (Brookes et al., 2023) and telling people they ‘must speak up’ is paradoxical (Cunha et al., 2018). It can also be difficult to speak up in hybrid and remote working environments, or when you are in nonstandard employment (

Turning to whistleblowing and business psychology, do we need whistleblowing? If as business psychologists, we create high levels of trust and engagement in organisations we can reduce significant wrongdoing in organisations by creating and embedding cultures that responding to concerns as and when they arise. However, is this feasible? Or does it depend if someone speaks up against a much-loved colleague? Or a senior high-profile colleague? If you are in a nonstandard employment relationship? If you are in house? What resources are available to investigate?

Highlighting the role of business psychologists with selection and assessment work, it is important to consider how and when whistleblowing polices are explained to potential and new staff. Is this information regularly repeated? Linked to this is the culture of the organisation, how it is described through organisational stories, and the written and unwritten rules of how new staff ‘should’ behave. On the one hand, new staff could offer fresh eyes on situations, challenging groupthink and institutionalisation, however long-term staff may be more likely to speak up about a wrongdoing as they are comfortable with an organisation.

When linking strategy and organisational effectiveness to whistleblowing, consider how effective a whistleblowing policy may be in practice. This includes how the policy has been created and the level of input from staff. Critiquing successful whistleblowing in an organisation may include factors such as reputation, number of cases raised vs number of recommendations implemented, and if the whistleblower is satisfied with the course of action. All of this is against a background of a sensitive and often confidential process.

A learning organisation will show both leadership and organisational wide improvements following a whistleblowing incident. This is connected to how leaders (at all levels) learn from mistakes, the blame culture and actions taken. This links to the definition of whistleblowing – those who speak up wish to affect action to resolve a situation that they cannot resolve themselves.

Ways to support whistleblowing within organisations as business psychologists include making it easier to speak up if needed. Asking workers how they want to blow the whistle if they should need to and offering multiple routes (informal and formal) is beneficial. Having up to date and regular training on whistleblowing company polices and what would happen in practice is helpful. Critiquing some leadership mantas such as ‘my door is always open… ‘ is important as senior leaders may be busy and some employees may not feel they cannot approach them. There may be a role for Unions and Regulators to pay if relevant to the industry you are in. Wellbeing at work is crucial – mental health can be impacted greatly by how whistleblowers are treated at work and by colleagues as a result of speaking up.

As some suggested next steps, why not consider how much you know about the whistleblowing policy in your company and how it is operationalised? Could there be a greater role for business psychologists to play in the implementation of a whistleblowing policy, and what does successful whistleblowing in action mean to you and different people within organisations and society?

Useful resources and references

• Near, J.P. and Miceli, M.P., (1985) Organizational dissidence: The case of whistle-blowing. Journal of business ethics, 4, pp.1-16.
• McDonald, S., & Ahern, K., (2000) The professional consequences of whistleblowing by nurses. Journal of Professional Nursing, 16(6), 313–321.
• Kenny, K., Vandekerckhove, W. and Irfan, M. 2020, ‘Whistleblowing as escalating voice’, in Wilkinson, A. et al. (eds) Handbook of Research on Employee Voice. 2nd edn. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar Publishing, pp. 437–454.
• Skivenes, M. and Trygstad, S.C., 2010. When whistle-blowing works: The Norwegian case. Human Relations, 63(7), pp.1071-1097.
• Brown, A. J., (2008) Whistleblowing in the Australian public sector: Enhancing the theory and practice of internal witness management in public sector organizations, ANU press
• Brooks, S., Richmond, J. and Blenkinsopp, J., (2023) Applying a lens of temporality to better understand voice about unethical behaviour. Journal of Business Ethics, pp.1-12.
• Cunha, M. P. E., Simpson, A. V., Clegg, S. R., & Rego, A. (2018) Speak! Paradoxical Effects of a Managerial Culture of ‘Speaking Up’. British Journal of Management, 30(4), 829–846.
• Stansbury, J.M. and Victor, B., (2009) Whistle-blowing among young employees: A life-course perspective. Journal of business ethics, 85, pp.281-299.
• Entwistle, T. and Doering, H., (2023) Amoral Management and the Normalisation of Deviance: The Case of Stafford Hospital. Journal of Business Ethics, pp.1-16.
• ‘Right kind of wrong, why learning to fail can teach us to thrive’ Amy Edmondson
• Skivenes, M., & Trygstad, S. C. (2016) Whistleblowing in local government: An empirical study of contact patterns and whistleblowing in 20 Norwegian municipalities. Scandinavian Political Studies, 39(3), 264-289.
• (as recommended by a guest), a whistleblowing reporting system


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