Whistleblowers: Should they be sued for leaking secrets?

Group 77

As an engineer, you can be exposed to sensitive information that you may find disturbing or believe to be illegal. You overhear someone talking about shortcuts they’ve taken in the design process or find a report of malpractice in your company that could put lives at risk. What do you do with that information? A whistleblower is a person that leaks this information about a company’s activity that is potentially illegal or damaging to the company. But then should you face repercussions from your employer for tarnishing their name? We discuss in the article below

Whistleblowers – perhaps not as saint like as they thought

Whistleblowers have the power to destroy a company’s reputation, and this can be based on unsubstantiated claims. In these cases, no lives were actually at risk but the company is still in danger of falling into disrepute, putting it’s financial and employee security into doubt.

According to The Guardian, in the case of a Rolls Royce employee who came forward citing concerns with the companies engines and was subsequently fired, the claims he was making were unsubstantiated and at a tribunal, it became clear he was uncooperative with the company.

The effect of damaging a company’s reputation can be catastrophic for thousands of people, if a company’s reputation is so badly damaged that it is at risk of liquidation thousands of employees can be made redundant. In the case of Enron, although no lives were at risk, it is estimated 28,500 people lost their jobs due to damage to company reputation because of a whistleblower in a corporate scandal. Using utilitarianism one can argue that it is morally wrong to blow the whistle on a company, in that causing thousands of people to lose their jobs is not the best possible outcome. If people were sued for whistleblowing, issues like in Enron would be more likely to be sorted internally, at no damage to reputation or to unemployment.

By blowing the whistle, the employee is effectively destroying any relationship of trust, not just with the company but also their fellow employees. These employees are then less likely to trust each other as there could be another potential whistleblower, thus preventing them from talking openly about problems, in fear of a co-worker blowing the whistle on them. This places a lot of strain on the working environment and can destroy productivity by creating an atmosphere of mistrust. This can massively reduce the productivity of the company and prevent innovation due to this hostile environment; putting the company’s future in jeopardy. Therefore under care ethics, which emphasises the importance of relationships, it is morally wrong, as you are destroying relationships rather than maintaining and culturing them. Thus the whistleblower can be seen as acting unethically and the company should be allowed to undertake legal action.

A last resort to protect the public

Whether engineers should be sued is a crucial factor to encourage them for disclosing sensitive information.  Sometimes, by revealing confidential information, the public’s assets or safety can be protected.  The ‘Utilitarianism’ theory suggested that the decision that leads to the most benefits to the most shall be considered as an ethical choice.  Depending on the stakeholders of a project/decision, if it’s affecting the general public, their interest is considered the top priority. It is different from the phenomenon of ‘Not in My Backyard’ (NIMBY), that describes people supporting a decision they can benefit from but opposing the way it’s implemented as it has a negative influence on them. In a circumstance that the company interest conflicts with the public, the company should give way to the public for the willing of the majority. It should be achieved by all means possible, including whistleblowing.  As it becomes an ethical decision to protect the majority of the public, people who do the disclosure should not be sued but be encouraged even it is a breach of promises and result in losses to the minority stakeholders. Last year, a malpractice was exposed in a major infrastructure construction in Hong Kong, which could lead to risk of structural collapse, according to South China Morning Post. A contractor risked his job to disclose to the public, and the public pressure forces the government to carry out an investigation and to evaluate the structural safety.

Unauthorised disclosure is sometimes the final option an engineer could take when the existing reporting system fails. How an engineer acts responsibly and to make ethically correct actions is sometimes rely on the guidelines set by professional organisations and the firm the engineer employed at, known as the code of conducts. Each company have their code of conducts, and they can be different between firms due to values and cultural variation. Responses from seniors are therefore become one of the factors affecting how engineer express their worries. After the Ladbroke Grove rail crash in London in 1999, a Confidential Incident Reporting & Analysis System (CIRAS) was introduced to the railway industry. The employee is protected to express their concerns anonymously. However, the reporting system is not implemented in all engineering fields, thus it is not always an effective solution. Engineers in this situation have no choice but to blow the whistle. Meanwhile, there is guidance from the Engineering Council in the UK for institution code of conducts, and safety is often highlighted. Some institutions provide advice for reporting concerns. These guidance and protection demonstrate the implement of Kantian Theory: People: An ethical decision is based on whether ones fulfil their duty (i.e. safety to everyone), but not the consequence of action, including being sued by individuals.

Initial Decision

As a group, we believe that the whistleblower should not face legal action as they have helped reduce the risk to the public by coming forward.

21 thoughts on “Whistleblowers: Should they be sued for leaking secrets?

  1. This is an interesting topic.
    In my opinion those employees that find problems within the company should be provided with a platform where they can anonymously say their thoughts. As the CIRAS was introduced, the other industries should follow the example.
    Furthermore, this procedure has actually been implemented in some major companies from the nuclear industry as there is a high risk associated with the failure of the systems. In these companies, the employee has 3 ways to express its thoughts:
    1. write an anonymous form and place it into a designed box (the problem with this method is that people can still see when somebody put something in there).
    2. write an anonymous post on a platform (this was mostly used where i worked in industry)
    3. go and speak directly with some consultants within the company who will then send your opinion further to the board of directors anonymously (the problem is that the other engineers can still see when you go it their offices for the meeting).

    In my opinion the second method is the one that can assure the engineer is not going to suffer for saying his/her concerns.

  2. This is a fascinating topic – thanks for discussing it.

    I think in the case of the Rolls-Royce employee, whistle-blowing is a concern, since: “the claims he was making were unsubstantiated”. Reading the article you cite, it does seem that this engineer has some resentment to Rolls-Royce. However, could it be that the engineer is highly stressed and this behaviour is a manifestation of it.

    Should an engineer be sued for whistle-blowing? I don’t think so, as that could prevent valid instances of it occurring. Whistle-blowing is a last resort, but necessary as we’ve seen in a number of cases.

  3. This is a really interesting topic.

    I think it completely depends on the situation.

    If the information is unsubstantiated as in the case of Rolls Royce, the employee could just as likely have made the information up for his own agenda as for it to be reliable information. I think in cases like these the company should have the right to sue the party but they should have to prove that the allegations to be false as in this case employee is defaming the company. I think it is important for companies to have the right to sue as otherwise there is no deterrent for people to make things up for their own agenda. This could have serious impacts on honest companies and they should have the right to be compensated for the impact caused by a party.

    In the instance of substantiated claims then things are different. I think it is not right to penalise (or sue/arrest) someone if they have released information into the public domain that gives evidence of wrongdoing by a party but only if releasing the information does not endanger lives (e.g. Julian Assange releasing information on government contacts). Job losses due to whistleblowing in my opinion is an unintended but necessary consequence to expose the wrongdoing of a company (especially in the cases where said wrongdoing puts lives at risk). However, I do think more protections should be put in place for whistleblowers and the ideas about anonymous whistleblowing are very important and should be compulsory in all major companies.

  4. It’s a tricky one to think about, and you can tell between the examples used, and in other recent whistleblowing cases that there is a significant amount of mental gymnastics required to figure out if it really is the right thing to do, and whether the proof is there as well.

    I don’t think the engineer should be sued, but I do understand how if it truly does damage the reputation and causes job losses, then those affected are going to feel aggrieved.

    The CIRAS system is a good idea and I think it should be more widely adopted. However, I worry that it may not be taken seriously as time progresses, as employees might report less serious issues through it with no retribution due to the anonymity.

    Interesting article overall.

  5. The ethics of whistleblowing is always an interesting topic and unfortunately there will never be a solution which is kind to both sides.
    I think it’s very important for companies to implement a strong, no nonsense attitude when it comes to dealing with such issues. For example, in aerospace where the human ‘cost’ of a mistake can be incredibly high, employees should be encouraged to find holes and such like in other people’s work. In the short term the public may develop a negative view on that company due to misconduct, however this would be marginal when compared with catastrophic events caused by misconduct.
    As for the engineers themselves, there should be an external body for all disciplines where misconduct can be reported and investigated. This should be investigated behind closed walls, that way if the company is innocent there is no reputational loss. Admittedly the cost of such a body is large and it would take a significant amount of time to setup effectively. On the flip side, engineers should be punished for purposely trying to hurt a companies reputation out of bad faith, with the consequences in line with the disruption caused.

    A thought-provoking article none the less.

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