Printer Friendly

Whistle-blowing as a form of advocacy: guidelines for the practitioner and organization.

Florence, a neophyte social worker, was employed by a long-term care unit for people with severe disabilities. After approximately one month, she observed what to her appeared to be incidents of resident abuse. She first attempted to discuss the situation with a staff member and was told, "You're new here. This is how we have to treat them or they won't listen to us." After discussing the situation with other people in the organization, including the medical staff, she learned of suspicious injuries some residents had incurred over the preceding eight months. Those that were reported to the local protective services agency resulted in inconclusive or negative findings. As a result, employees accepted periodic incidents of abuse as inevitable.

Florence brought up her concerns at a routine meeting. Her immediate supervisor and unit coordinator discussed the magnitude of the problem, yet at the end of the meeting, Florence sadly concluded that neither would pursue the matter. After agonizing about the issue for several days and reading and rereading the NASW Code of Ethics, she finally decided to chronicle what she had witnessed and to express her apprehensions publicly at a quarterly caretaker meeting. At the meeting, after voicing her suspicions, she implored those present "to take it upon yourselves to become advocates for not only your loved ones, but also those who have no one to advocate for them."

Strong disapproval of Florence's actions was expressed over the next few days. Other employees immediately distanced themselves from her. Shortly after the caretakers' meeting, Florence's immediate supervisor and unit coordinator met with her and attempted to explain why her actions had been inappropriate. Angry and hurt, she refused to retract her claims or to consider the possibility that speaking up at the caretakers' meeting had been unwise. Her credibility within the agency seriously undermined, Florence was asked to leave the organization.

As a value and a skill, advocacy has been an inherent component of social work since the mid- 1800s--the era of Dorothea Dix (Fisher & Karger, 1997). Advocates commonly are viewed as practitioners who defend have-nots against an uncaring bureaucracy in accordance with professional values and using professional skills. The NASW Code of Ethics (2000) explicitly promotes advocacy as an ethical stance against inhumane conditions.

When a social work employee goes beyond advocacy inside the organization to advocacy outside the organization, she or he engages in what is known as "external whistle-blowing" and may be subject to repercussions. Whistle-blowing as a phenomenon has been studied and discussed extensively in business and public administration disciplines. Media portrayals show real-life dramas in which lone individuals place millions of dollars at stake and the whistle-blower's career, reputation, health, family, and life are in jeopardy. Business, public, and health administration articles offer guidance to organizations on how to prevent and respond to whistle-blowing.

Whistle-blowing has received increasing attention in the social work field as well, particularly since the 1999 revision of the NASW Code of Ethics (2000). Most discussions of whistle-blowing in social work have occurred in the context of ethical decision making (Loewenberg, Dolgoff, & Harrington, 2000; Reamer, 1998). For example, the 19th edition of the Encyclopedia of Social Work (Edwards, 1995) has a subsection on whistle-blowing under the major category of "Ethics and Values" (Reamer, 1995).

Our literature review, however, revealed a dearth of articles exploring whistle-blowing in the context of social work advocacy. Using the case composite as an illustration, this article seeks to fill that gap by offering pragmatic guidance to practitioners on how to mitigate against negative consequences if they decide to publicly reveal ethical violations within their organizations.

After hearing reports of several instances of whistle-blowing, we decided to write this article. Each incident stirred up outrage and divisiveness among the people directly and indirectly involved. Also, although most of the actors strongly supported advocacy as a stalwart part of the social work tradition, they were split in each case on whether the whistle-blower's actions had been advisable. Therefore, the intent of this article is fourfold:

1. to define and describe theoretical and practical knowledge about whistle-blowing based on a literature review

2. to review the social work profession's current stance on advocacy and ethical decision making

3. to explain whistle-blowing as a special form of advocacy

4. to offer guidance to potential whistle-blowers and their organizations on how to handle situations in which whistle-blowing is likely to be actively considered as an advocacy option.

Review of the Literature


Although somewhat different definitions of whistle-blowing exist (see, for example, Barnett, 1992a; Callahan & Collins, 1992; Davis, 1989; Heacock & McGee, 1987; Larmer, 1992; Miceli, Near, & Schwenk, 1991; Near & Miceli, 1995), three criteria appear as consistent themes: whistle-blowing is (1) the act of notifying powerful others of wrongful practices in an organization (Miceli & Near, 1994); (2) motivated by the desire to prevent unnecessary harm to others (Dandekar, 1991); and (3) the action of an employee or former employee (that is, not a journalist or outsider) who has privileged access to information (Dandekar; Johnson & Kraft, 1990).

By these criteria, then, Florence in the introductory vignette was a whistle-blower. She brought a wrongful practice to the attention of the public (that is, guardians or caretakers of the institution's residents), had appropriate moral motives of preventing unnecessary harm, and was knowledgeable about the situation because of privileged ("insider") access in her employee role.

Characteristics of Whistle-Blowers

Few employees who observe wrongful practices actually report them. For example, one study found organizational wrongdoing was reported by fewer than one-third of the federal employees who observed such incidents (U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board, 1984). In identifying characteristics of whistle-blowers, researchers have found that whistle-blowers

* are altruistically motivated and intend for their actions to be beneficial to those being wronged (Garde, 1992; Miceli et al., 1991)

* are utilitarian, possess a high level of moral development, and are driven by their sense of integrity and social responsibility to speak out, even when under symbolic or literal pressures to keep silent (Brabeck, 1984; Garde; Miceli et al.)

* seem uninterested in tailoring their behavior to conform to particular situations and behave consistently across situations (Brabeck; Garde)

* allow their own attitudes and beliefs to guide them and "won't lie to cover up" (Garde; los, Tompkins, & Hays, 1989)

* often are well-educated, hold managerial or professional positions, and keep well-documented records of what they perceive to be abuse and waste (Barnett, 1992a; Garde).

Consequences of Whistle-Blowing

Whistle-blowing results in repercussions for the accused organizations, organizational members, and the whistle-blowers themselves. If evidence exists to substantiate an organization's wrongdoing, the accused organization may lose hundreds of millions of dollars through lawsuits, restitution, decreased productivity, and tarnished reputations. Organizational members may experience the whistle-blowing act as traitorous and a personal affront. Some may believe that the whistle-blower has betrayed their confidentiality and trust and is challenging the morality of those who found the questionable practices at least minimally acceptable (Dandekar, 1991). Others view whistle-blowing as an act of disloyalty and insurrection in that it disrupts "business-as-usual," damages the employer's reputation (Dandekar), and implies that management failed to "keep control" (Davis, 1989).

The whistle-blower experiences the unhappy situation when punitive sanctions result from expressing the truth (Dandekar, 1991; Reamer, 1998), and one side or point of view is pitted against the other, creating a we-are-good-they-are-bad mentality. Miceli et al. (1991) noted, "in rigidly structured organizations where a single view predominates, dissent introduced by 'devil's advocates' is likely to be ignored" (p. 119). Psychological isolation may occur as well. Davis (1989) observed that minimally, people will be unable to "hear the whistle-blower's name without thinking unpleasant thoughts" (p. 7). Dandekar noted that whistle-blowers might receive letters of recommendation that subtly or overtly disparage the whistle-blower.

Behavioral and material consequences may be even more severe. The actions of the whistle-blower can lead to heinous personal abuse (Johnson & Kraft, 1990); a premature end to a career (Brenner, 1996); blackballing or blacklisting (Robison, 1995); being labeled or treated as insane (Andersen, 2003; Government Accountability Project, 2000); and grueling lawsuits, deterioration of physical and mental health, and depletion of life savings accounts (Miller, 1995). Some have even paid the price with their lives (the Karen Silkwood story in Kohn, 1977).

Legislative and Judicial Protection for Whistle-Blowers

The Whistleblower Protection Law of 1989 (P.L. 99-500) was the first legislation passed "to enhance protection of Federal employees who divulge information about agency mismanagement or wrongdoing (whistle-blowers)" (Congressional Information Service, 1986, p. 393). The law established an independent office for investigating whistle-blowing allegations and established that office as counsel for federal employees in whistleblower cases. The provisions of the whistle-blower act were expanded in 1994. By 1995 more than 40 states had passed their own statutes protecting citizens who engage in whistle-blowing in their states (Near & Miceli, 1995).

As might be expected, however, no legislation has fully protected the whistle-blower. In fact, most individuals in the aforementioned cases were not spared extreme retaliation, even if they were legally protected from being fired. Repercussions such as demotions or involuntary transfers have led to judicial protection as well. Recently, a federal administrative judge awarded Casey Rudd, a nuclear whistle-blower, lifetime pay "on the basis of his remaining expected professional life (including fringe benefits)," after it was shown that he had been forced out of his Westinghouse position and a subsequent one at another company (Government Accountability Project, 1998, para. 4).

Social Work's Stance on Ethical Decision Making, Advocacy, and Whistle-Blowing

NASW Code of Ethics

In the introductory vignette, Florence consulted the NASW's Code of Ethics (2000) before going public with her concerns. The code is clear that social workers are obliged to "generally adhere to commitments made to employers and employing organizations" (Section 3.09a, p. 21). In other words, with the word "generally" as a caveat, social workers are honor bound to respect the policies and regulations of their employing organizations. Their responsibilities as employees, however, do not relieve them of their personal moral and ethical responsibilities as professionals (Rhodes, 1986). Four standards address social workers' responsibilities when they believe that ethical standards are being violated by virtue of a colleague's impairment or incompetence, four others explicitly address social workers' responsibilities when they suspect that ethical standards are being violated by their colleagues, and three address social workers' responsibilities in the context of their responsibilities to their employing institution (Table 1).

These standards imply that although action should be taken, it should be "through appropriate channels" (Sections 203b, 209a, 210b, 211d), using "adequate measures" (Section 211a), and by taking "reasonable steps" (Sections 309c, 309d). What are the appropriate channels? Adequate measures? Reasonable steps? The literature on advocacy encourages responsible action, but does not provide sufficient guidance for those whose employing institutions are the site of the wrongdoing.

Advocacy in Theory and Practice

Ezell (1994) noted that social workers receive encouragement to advocate for clients' rights from various sources in addition to the code, including the National Association of Black Social Workers, the Radical Social Service Workers, and the professional literature. Some of this professional literature includes textbooks on social work practice (see, for example, Hepworth & Larsen, 1993). The Bertha Capen Reynolds Society, a national organization of progressive social workers, continues the legacy of its founder by "facilitating both individual and social change through advocacy, transformation, and empowerment" (Bertha Capen Reynolds Society, 2000).

The difficulty of engaging in client advocacy in the employing organization has been noted by several authors. Three decades ago, Wineman and James (1969) noted that students often were encouraged to identify with the agency, rather than the client. To quote Wineman and James, "there is something seriously amiss in the eager embrace of identification with the agency as the hallmark for the emerging professional identity, while warning of the precariousness of such identification with the client" (pp. 27-28). Similarly, Epstein (1970) offered this warning:
 To the extent that professional commitments
 are tied to agency commitments ... the consequence
 is a profession that supports and defends
 the status quo .... To the extent that
 professional commitments are tied to the interests
 of clients (as the clients define them),
 the consequence is a profession that supports
 and actively advocates social change. (p. 92)

Whistle-Blowing as a Form of Advocacy

As commonly used, the term whistle-blowing appears to be specific to business, public, and health administration disciplines, whereas advocacy as a term is more specific to social work. Social work has its historical roots in advocacy on behalf of oppressed people, and most social work texts list advocate as one of several social work roles (for example, Popple & Leighninger, 1993; Zastrow & Kirst-Ashman, 1997). Yet, scant social work literature was found on whistle-blowing, mostly in texts on ethical decision making (see, for example, Reamer, 1998). Furthermore, a literature review revealed no article on whistle-blowing in major, peer-reviewed social work journals. In contrast, although the term advocacy is rare in business and public administration journals, articles on whistle-blowing are not.

In the medical field, however, both patient advocacy and whistle-blowing have received attention, particularly in the nursing literature (see, for example, DiMotto, 1995; Jackson & Raftos, 1997; Lunn, 1995; McDonald & Ahern, 1999) and whistle-blowing has been viewed as an "act of advocacy" by nursing scholars (Anderson, 1990; Bosek, 1993).

In a social work context, most definitions of advocacy have been general enough to encompass a range of situations, including whistle-blowing. For example, Hardcastle, Wenocur, and Powers (1997) defined advocacy as
 championing or speaking for the interests of
 clients or citizens.... Social work managers,
 for example, often promote their clients'
 causes with officials and decision maker....
 Advocacy has a role in ... challenging "inhumane
 conditions" at a micro or macro level.
 (p. 348)

Similarly, others have used definitions of advocacy that are remarkably similar to those of whistle-blowing: intervening with or on the client's or client group's behalf (Epstein, 1981; Hepworth & Larsen, 1993); taking action to modify organizational practices that are unethical (Gilbert & Specht, 1976); and working with problems that do not originate with the client, but how an unresponsive system interacts with the client (Epstein, 1981).

Haskett (1989) provided a list of 27 types of social work advocacy, including contacting government officials directly, talking with representatives of the press and mass media, engaging in litigation, and having influential constituents contact their congressperson's office. Based on our earlier definition of whistle-blowing, each of these forms of social work advocacy may also be classified as whistle-blowing if the purpose is to reveal organizational wrongdoing by a knowledgeable insider who wishes to prevent further harm.

In implicit recognition of the fact that client advocacy may entail whistle-blowing, NASW established the Jack Otis Whistle-Blower Award in 1993 to recognize social workers who confront unethical practices in their employing organizations at personal risk to themselves. Nominees first must have attempted to resolve the issue internally and then, when that failed, tried to resolve it externally (NASW, 1996). Clearly, the profession vigorously supports advocacy--and whistle-blowing--on behalf of clients.

Guidelines for Responsible Whistle-Blowing

In the composite case described at the beginning of this article, Florence chose to advocate for the facility's residents by blowing the whistle. As is typical in such situations, she was forced to leave the organization under adverse circumstances, and no indication existed at that time that the organization would change its policies to prevent future abuse. How might the situation have been handled differently? We recommend that the advocate seek correction of the problem in successive steps. Had Florence followed these steps, her chances for success might have been improved.

Assess the Situation and One's Own Preparedness to Go Forward. Once practitioners become aware of a possible ethical violation or wrongdoing, they first must decide if they are prepared to surface these concerns. Reamer (1990) suggested that this decision be based on three factors: "the severity of the apparent violation, the severity of harm it poses to others, and the reliability of the available evidence" (p. 221). Reamer (1990) also suggested that practitioners carefully assess their own motivations before proceeding. Here are questions that practitioners might ask themselves:

* Is the colleague's or organization's wrongdoing severe enough to warrant intervention? If so, what form of redress or commitment for rectification by the organization will warrant my dropping the matter?

* If I decide to go public, is the potential benefit to the clients worth the potential threats to the organization's public image, or to the very existence of the organization? How do I know the difference?

* Is my evidence credible and sufficient? Should I collect more? If I attempt to collect more overtly, will I blow my strategy or cut off further access to information?

* Am I motivated by unresolved anger from my past, justified anger based on the here-and-now situation that I am witnessing, or both? How do I determine whether my own motivations (that is, 15 minutes in the spotlight, revenge, and so forth) are slanting my judgment?

* Can I live with myself if I remain silent? Can l live with myself if I speak up?

* Am I prepared to face the adverse consequences of possibly even losing my job? Are there laws or a union that can support my retaining my job? If I do continue in my job, what negative reactions from administrators and colleagues might be anticipated? Can I cope with these reactions?

Begin First with the Offending Colleagues. If, on the basis of responses to these questions, the practitioner determines that the situation warrants further action, Section 211 (c) of the Code of Ethics is unequivocal that the practitioner must begin with the colleagues with whom he or she has a concern. As Reamer (1998) noted, however, direct discussion with the colleague may not always be feasible or satisfactory if the colleague is in denial or unwilling to address the problem. In the case example, Florence did attempt to discuss the issue with one staff member who she witnessed abusing a resident, but was rebuffed.

Establish a Track Record of Credibility. Flynn (1995) cautioned that "effective advocacy depends ... on developing credibility with those in positions of authority" over an extended period of time. As he explained, "credibility is partially dependent on being perceived as being proactive rather than reactive in gathering the experience and savvy for effective advocacy" (p. 2177). In the case example, Florence was automatically at a disadvantage as a neophyte social worker and new employee. Because of this, she would have profited by taking extra care in how she approached the situation and the documentation she obtained to support her claims.

Assume Others in the Organization Are Concerned. At least initially, the assumption should be that others are aware and concerned, but have been thwarted in their initial attempts to take action or have simply grown accustomed to the situation, despite their discomfort about it. Indeed, they might welcome new perspectives and energy to help motivate them to take action against an obviously unethical situation. Instead of initially assuming that her supervisor and unit coordinator were uncaring adversaries, Florence could have explored their level of discomfort with the situation, attempted to solicit them and others in the organization as equally concerned allies, and explored alternative actions with them, such as those described in the "Guidelines for Organizational Leaders" section.

Obtain Corroborating Evidence and Supporters. When questionable practices are discovered, it behooves the advocate to investigate the situation thoroughly and to gather supporting evidence before pursuing any action beyond discussions with the offending colleague. In addition, support should be sought from others who have witnessed the abuse or violation. Going laterally within the organization can lend much needed support. In the case example, Florence did seek advice from the facility's medical staff. However, they were disillusioned that anything could be done. Florence might have approached this as a community organizing dilemma and attempted to gain the support of one person pending the support of others, and so forth, until she had a critical mass of people prepared to speak up about the situation again--together.

A critical question is how confidential information will be treated if obtained from those inside the organization who do not wish to join the complaint. So, for example, if Florence had taken her complaint further in the organization, should she identify staff members who had confided to her that they too witnessed resident abuse? According to Section 2.02 of the code, "social workers should respect confidential information shared by colleagues in the course of their professional relationships and transactions. Social workers should ensure that such colleagues understand social workers' obligation to respect confidentiality and any exceptions related to it." At least initially, while the complaint is within the organization, every effort should be made to respect the confidentiality of those who do not wish to be identified. If the situation is dire, then identification of others may be obtained only under the advice of external consultants and after informing the colleagues that the severity of the situation warrants violating their confidence.

Keep Careful Records. Practitioner should stay mindful that the final outcome might be a legal proceeding (for example, a formal grievance or court hearing). Careful documentation of what happened when and who said what would help the advocate construct a chronology of events on demand and help maintain the advocate's credibility. In the case example, Florence did produce a chronology to help explain her actions.

Use the Chain of Command. Unless the situation is dire and urgent, practitioners are advised to honor an organization's established norm for pursuing any grievance, at least initially. If the practitioner meets with either overt or covert resistance from the immediate higher level of supervision, she or he should go to the next higher level--ideally, in a joint meeting with the immediate supervisor and the supervisor's supervisor. This course of action is pursued until all levels of the hierarchy have been approached. Notably, Florence stopped at the level of her immediate supervisor. Had she continued up the chain of command, she would have demonstrated her professionalism, respect for the organization, and positive regard toward each individual in the chain. She would have also been in greater compliance with the previously cited Section 3.09 (c) by ensuring that her employer was aware of her ethical obligation to take further action as a social worker.

Obtain the Advice of Dispassionate, Expert Outsiders. The NASW Code of Ethics implies that social workers must first attempt to resolve ethical conflicts within the organization. But, "if a reasonable resolution of the conflict does not appear possible, social workers should seek proper consultation before making a decision" (NASW, 2000, p. 3). Such consultation may come from "an agency-based or social work organization's ethics committee, a regulatory body, knowledgeable colleagues, supervisors, or legal counsel" (p. 3).

Note that the risk to the social worker and the type of information or advice provided varies depending on the source of the consultation. Some of those suggested by the NASW guidelines might be expected to maintain the social worker's confidentiality; others may not. Also, the sources differ in their ability to help clarify how to minimize personal risk, whether the alleged violation warrants that risk, the formal process for filing a complaint with professional associations or state regulatory bodies, and the process for bringing the alleged violation to the attention of others (for example, caretakers, media, and so forth).

Consultation about personal risk may be obtained from attorneys, knowledgeable colleagues, and people familiar with advocacy in organizational settings. Each of these may help steer the advocate step by careful step through the inevitable morass of highly emotional charges and countercharges. Also, if carefully selected, each may be expected to keep the information shared by the social worker confidential.

Consultation about the severity and, hence, ethical imperative of the issue as well as how to file complaints with professional associations and state regulatory bodies may be obtained from ethicists and from professional associations themselves. For example, the national office of NASW and some NASW state chapters provide informal consultation to people inquiring about how to proceed in cases of suspected ethics violations. Generally, this consultation consists of describing the process for filing a complaint and explication of the relevant sections of the Code of Ethics, rather than giving direct advice to the person seeking consultation (personal communication with M. McGlone, manager, Office of Ethics and Professional Review, NASW national office, July 26, 2000). Although the state and national NASW offices do not guarantee confidentiality per se, they do not release information regarding callers or content to others. The association also provides information about how to contact state regulatory boards.

Consultation on how to bring the issue to the attention of the public may be obtained from social work colleagues who specialize in direct action tactics. The Government Accountability Project, a nonprofit organization, has a Web site that provides information and advice for potential whistle-blowers ( However, as suggested by the Code of Ethics, this latter approach is to be used only if the preceding avenues are unsuccessful and the advocate is willing to risk this type of public exposure.

In the case example, Florence did first seek outside advice from within the organization. However, when the advice failed to support her position, she acted unilaterally. She would have been wise to seek advice from a trusted expert outside the system and particularly from NASW before speaking up at the caretakers' meeting. Obtain Emotional Support. Advocates are likely to need emotional support and encouragement to persist in the face of skepticism or hostility from individuals they must confront. The organizational expert mayor may not serve this function. If not, the advocate should find someone else with whom to vent anger, despair, grief, and all of the other emotions that would be normal under such circumstances.

As predicted by Wineman and James (1969), the advocate's emotional stability, judgment, and intrapsychic issues are all likely to be called into question by those who question the advocacy. In such an emotionally charged situation, those questions are likely to have a valid base. If Florence had addressed questions about her judgment in a safe environment with a trusted professional during the course of the unfolding events, she might have been better equipped to respond to her challengers.

Consider Going Outside the Organization Only as a Last Resort. If after acute self-examination and discussion with trusted experts, the advocate decides to blow the whistle on the organization, a tie is broken. With the assistance of a trusted outside expert, the whistle-blower should be well prepared for the consequences. First, she of he should be prepared to leave the organization eventually. The unfortunate reality is that most whistle-blowers end up leaving the organization--either voluntarily or involuntarily. If the advocate obtains sufficient numbers of insiders to join in the whistle-blowing, leaving may not be mandatory. Either way, the advocate should enter the situation prepared for this possibility. Whether they stay or go, whistle-blowers should keep in mind the original goal to protect the clients. In the intrigue, ensuing gossip, hurt, and angry emotions, and unfolding strategy, the goal of protecting the client may get lost.

Guidelines for Organizational Leaders


Organizations that wish to protect themselves against the forced change and public embarrassment that may ensue from whistle-blowing should establish preventive measures. First and most obvious, organizations should establish sound human resources management policies that place top priority on quality customer service and ethical behavior (Schneider & Bowen, 1993). The following policies are apt to help prevent the likelihood of organizational wrongdoing:

* Establish screening procedures to ensure that only ethical and morally responsible personnel are hired.

* Establish a "no tolerance" policy against ethical violations, require that all alleged instances of organizational wrongdoing be reported immediately, and make frequent verbal and written statements about the policy. Research has consistently shown that most employees believe that their organizations would do nothing if they (the employees) report wrongdoing and that the most powerful incentive an organization can offer employees to report wrongdoing is the willingness to correct the situation (Miceli & Near, 1994).

* Hold periodic meetings to identify situations ripe for ethical violations and provide periodic training on symptoms of potential wrongdoing or abuse (Miceli & Near).

* Establish written policies regarding the organization's ethical standards. The policies may cover standards regarding client treatment, safety violations, conflict of interest, or other situations that may potentially harm the organization and its clients.

* Include in the policy the steps employees should take if they observe violations, assurances that no retribution will occur to employees who report the violations, and, to the extent possible, provisions for protecting the anonymity of the employees (Barnett, 1992b). Research has demonstrated that employees are more likely to report wrongdoing internally if they clearly understand the internal channels of complaint (Miceli & Near).

* Establish an organizational ethics committee to oversee an "ethics audit" to identify the potential risk posed by different organizational practices (Reamer, 2000) and to advise management and staff on how to promote ethical decision making within the agency.

* Evaluate employees' performance partially on the treatment of clients (or adherence to standards) and expand the reviews to include the input of both peers and clients.

* Actively encourage peer monitoring and reporting of organizational wrongdoing or unethical practices. To mitigate against creating a watchdog atmosphere of mistrust, the organization should emphasize that ensuring high ethical standards is everyone's responsibility and is ultimately the only way for the organization to provide quality services to its clients (Miceli & Near).

The importance of ethical leadership cannot be overstated. There is significant evidence that employees' perceptions of the moral integrity of top management affect their behavior and performance (Church, 1995). Leaders who inspire a shared vision of a work setting in which client safety and well-being are paramount are unlikely to experience whistle-blowing by employees.

Initial Internal Complaint

Once a whistle-blower has brought the possibility of unethical practices to an organization's attention, the organization's written policy on violation of ethical standards is activated. All actions taken by the organization should be undertaken with three goals in mind: (1) elimination of the violation, if it exists, (2) demonstration to employees that ethical violations will not be tolerated and their support of this policy is valued, and (3) correction of the situation that gave rise to the violations.

Thus, managers should consider taking the following steps when faced with complaints:

* Hear the complaint openly without pre-judgments.

* Establish an employee review panel to investigate the allegations. Such a panel may be in the best position to determine if the complaints are justified or if they are solely the result of personal motivations on the part of the complainant.

* Provide a written or verbal response to the reporting employee of the steps that have been taken to address the concerns and to prevent such concerns in the future. If the violation was not substantiated, speak with the employee about the incidents that led to the expression of the concerns. The advocate may have identified a situation with a high potential for organizational wrongdoing in the future. Unless reporting employees are notified of actions taken, they are likely to conclude that nothing is being done and to spread the word that the organization's policies on ethical violations are a sham.

* To reinforce the organization's concern about ethical violations, consider making a public statement to other employees about the complaint, investigation, and disposition.

* Charge a manager, task force, or organizational ethics committee (if one is established) to make suggestions on how to prevent the violations from recurring.

In addition to these steps, the people to whom individual advocates report their concerns should strive to view this situation with optimism and support. Recognize that advocacy--and even whistle-blowing--is most often undertaken with a genuine concern for the organization and the client.

Public Complaint

If these procedures break down, the advocate may become an external whistle-blower by going public. Organizational leaders are likely to hear about the alleged unethical practices under embarrassing and potentially threatening circumstances. Although the natural reaction is outrage, particularly if the whistle-blower is a trusted insider, managers should be aware of the laws and regulations protecting whistle-blowers and of pertinent professional accrediting bodies' regulations on practitioners' ethical responsibilities. Any repercussions must be based on clear evidence that the whistle-blower acted maliciously or with deliberate intent to cause difficulty for the organization.

In the introductory vignette, Florence's supervisor and unit coordinator attempted to counsel her about the inadvisability of her statements to the caretakers, even though they agreed with her that there was cause for concern. When she did not respond to this approach, she experienced repercussions that may have violated laws protecting whistle-blowers.

Summary and Implications for Social Work

This article has discussed whistle-blowing as a special form of advocacy in the field of social work. Although we have focused mainly on whistle-blowing in agencies and organizations, occasions for whistle-blowing may occur in other contexts (that is, private practice) or for reasons other than client abuse (for example, financial malfeasance, discrimination, or safety violations). For this reason, it behooves us all to realize that we eventually may face the dilemma of "to report or not to report." Whatever our decision, we must not let it be governed by those who hold fast to the belief that the organization must be protected at all costs, even to the detriment of those we serve. Nor must our decision be governed by our own raw emotions, which can become unpredictable and irrational in highly controversial and ethically challenging situations.

Our decision should be based on our own ethical principles and the code of ethics that governs our professional behavior. Specifically, we must ensure that blowing the whistle can be supported by a jury of our peers, is carried out in good faith and with the best interest of all parties at heart, is absolutely necessary on moral and ethical grounds, and is never motivated by malicious intent.

Organizational leaders also are faced with painful choices. Enacting the recommendations given here may be expensive. In this cutback era of dwindling resources, some agencies may be hard-pressed to find the time or funds to develop new policies, to train staff on potential instances of organizational wrongdoing of ethical violations, and to release staff to serve on ethical oversight or review committees. Although we do not wish to be dismissive of such concerns, our hope is that this article encourages organizational leaders to be diligent and creative in their efforts to avoid the risk of public (or client) harm, public embarrassment, and loss of integrity in the eyes of their clients, employees, funders, and other major stakeholders.

Table 1

NASW's Code of Ethics Standards on Collegial Behavior and Responsibility to Employer

2.09 Impairment of Colleagues

(a) Social workers who have direct knowledge of a social work colleague's impairment that is due to personal problems, psychosocial distress, substance abuse, or mental health difficulties and that interferes with practice effectiveness should consult with that colleague when feasible and assist the colleague in taking remedial action.

(b) Social workers who believe that a social work colleague's impairment interferes with practice effectiveness and that the colleague has not taken adequate steps to address the impairment should take action through appropriate channels established by employers, agencies, NASW, licensing and regulatory bodies, and other professional organizations.

2.10 Incompetence of Colleagues

(a) Social workers who have direct knowledge of a social work colleague's incompetence should consult with that colleague when feasible and assist the colleague in taking remedial action.

(b) Social workers who believe that a social work colleague is incompetent and has not taken adequate steps to address the incompetence should take action through appropriate channels established by employers, agencies, NASW, licensing and regulatory bodies, and other professional organizations.

Sec. 211 Unethical Conduct of Colleagues

(a) Social workers should take adequate measures to discourage, prevent, expose, and correct the unethical conduct of colleagues.

(b) Social workers should be knowledgeable about established policies and procedures for handling concerns about colleagues' unethical behavior. Social workers should be familiar with national, state, and local procedures for handling ethics complaints. These include policies and procedures created by NASW, licensing and regulatory bodies, employers, agencies, and other professional organizations.

(c) Social workers who believe that a colleague has acted unethically should seek resolution by discussing their concerns with the colleague when feasible and when such discussion is likely to be productive.

(d) When necessary, social workers who believe that a colleague has acted unethically should take action through appropriate formal channels (such as contacting a state licensing board or regulatory body, an NASW committee on inquiry, or other professional ethics committees).

Section 3.09 Commitment to Employers

(a) Social workers generally should adhere to commitments made to employers and employing organizations

(c) Social workers should take reasonable steps to ensure that employers are aware of social workers' ethical obligations as set forth in the NASW Code of Ethics and of the implications of those obligations for social work practice.

(d) Social workers should not allow employing organization's policies, procedures, regulations, or administrative orders to interfere with their ethical practice of social work. Social workers should take reasonable steps to ensure that their employing organizations' practices are consistent with the NASW Code of Ethics.

SOURCE: National Association of Social Workers. (2000). Code of ethics of the National Association of Social Workers [Online].


Andersen, M. (2003). USDA's Linda Lewis returns to work. Government Accountability Project. Retrieved February 12, 2004, from

Anderson, S. L. (1990). Patient advocacy and whistle-blowing in nursing: Help for the helpers. Nursing Forum, 25, 5-13.

Barnett, T. (1992a). A preliminary investigation of the relationship between selected organizational characteristics and external whistle-blowing by employees. Journal of Business Ethics, 11,949-959.

Barnett, T. (1992b, Autumn). Why your company should have a whistle-blowing policy. SAM Advanced Management Journal, 57, 27-42.

Bertha Capen Reynolds Society. (2000). What we stand for. Retrieved July 29, 2000, from

Bosek, M. S. (1993). Whistle blowing: An act of advocacy. Medical-Surgical Nursing, 2, 480-482.

Brabeck, M. (1984). Ethical characteristics of whistle-blowers. Journal of Research in Personality, 18, 41-53.

Brenner, M. (1996, May). The man who knew too much. Vanity Fair. Retrieved January 21, 2004, from

Callahan, E. S., & Collins, J. W. (1992). Employee attitudes toward whistle-blowing: Management and public policy implications. Journal of Business Ethics, 11, 939-948.

Church, A. H. (1995). Managerial behaviors and group climate as predictors of employee outcomes. Human Resource Development Quarterly, 6, 173-205.

Congressional Information Service. (1986). Abstracts of congressional publications (Vol. 7, Nos. 1-12). Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Dandekar, N. (1991). Can whistle-blowing be fully legitimated? A theoretical discussion. Business 6. Professional Ethics Journal, 10, 89-108.

Davis, M. (1989). Avoiding the tragedy of whistle-blowing. Business & Professional Ethics Journal, 8, 3-19.

DiMotto, I. (1995). Whistle blowing: Seven tips for reporting unsafe conduct. Nursing Quality Connection, 4, 8, 12.

Edwards, R. L. (Ed.-in-Chief). (1995). Encyclopedia of social work (19th ed., Vols. 1-3). Washington, DC: NASW Press.

Epstein, I. (1970). Professional role orientations and conflict strategies. Social Work, 15, 87-92.

Epstein, I. (1981). Advocates on advocacy: An exploratory study. Social Work Research & Abstracts, 17(2), 5-12.

Ezell, M. (1994). Advocacy practice of social workers. Families in Society, 75, 36-46.

Fisher, R., & Karger, H. 1. (1997). Social work and community in a private world: Getting out in public. White Plains, NY: Longman.

Flynn, J. P. (1995). Social justice in social agencies. In R. L. Edwards (Ed.-in-Chief), Encyclopedia of social work (19th ed., Vol. 3, pp. 2173-2179). Washington, DC: NASW Press.

Garde, B. P. (1992). Workplace litigation: Representing the whistle-blower--A case or a cause? Trial, 28, 32-41.

Gilbert, N., & Specht, H. (1976). Advocacy and professional ethics. Social Work, 21, 288-293.

Government Accountability Project. (1998). "Court awards 'unprecedented victory' to whistle-blower". Retrieved July 21, 2000, from

Government Accountability Project. (2000). "Court hands victory to security whistleblower". Retrieved February 12, 2004, from

Hardcastle, D. A., Wenocur, S., & Powers, P. R. (1997). Community practice: Theories and skills for social workers. New York: Oxford University Press.

Haskett, G. T. (1989). Teaching social policy: Implications for a part-time social work education model. Journal of Continuing Social Work Education, 5, 22-26.

Heacock, M. V., & McGee, G. W. (1987). Whistle-blowing: An ethical issue in organizational and human behavior. Business & Professional Ethics Journal, 6, 35-46.

Hepworth, D. E., & Larsen, J. (Eds.). (1993). Direct social work practice/theory and skills. Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole.

Jackson, D., & Raftos, M. (1997). In uncharted waters: Confronting the culture of silence in a residential care institution, International Journal of Nursing Practice, 3, 34-39.

Johnson, R. A., & Kraft, M. E. (1990). Bureaucratic whistle-blowing and policy change. Western Political Quarterly, 43, 849-874.

Jos, P. H., Tompkins, M. E., & Hays, S. W. (1989, November/December). In praise of difficult people: A portrait of the committed whistle-blower. Public Administration Review, 49, 552-561.

Kohn, H. (1977). The nuclear industry's terrible power and how it silenced Karen silkwood. In P. Scanlon (Ed.), Reporting: The Rolling Stone lifestyle (pp. 104-139). Garden City, NY: Anchor/Doubleday.

Larmer, R. A. (1992). Whistle-blowing and employee loyalty. Journal of Business Ethics, 11, 125-128.

Loewenberg, F. M., Dolgoff, R., & Harrington, D. (2000). Ethical decisions for social work practice (6th ed.). Itasca, IL: F. E. Peacock.

Lunn, J. E. (1995). Whistle-blowing: A legal perspective. British Journal of Nursing, 4, 1032-1034.

McDonald, S., & Ahern, K. (1999). Whistle-blowing: Effective and ineffective coping responses. Nursing Forum, 34, 5-13.

Miceli, M. P., & Near, J. P. (1994). Whistle-blowing: Reaping the benefits. Academy of Management Executives, 8, 65-72.

Miceli, M. P., Near, J. P., & Schwenk, C. R. (1991). Who blows the whistle and why? Industrial and Labor Relations Review, 45, 113-129.

Miller, J. (1995, February 12). Paying the price for blowing the whistle. New York Times, p. 1.

National Association of Social Workers. (1996, Ma), 22). Memorandum to the president of the national board of directors. Washington, DC: Author.

National Association of Social Workers. (2000). Code of ethics of the National Association of Social Workers. Retrieved July 21, 2000, from

Near, J. P., & Miceli, J. P. (1995). Effective whistle-blowing. Academy of Management Review, 20, 679-708.

Popple, P. R., & Leighninger, L. (1993). Social work, social welfare, and American society (2nd ed.). Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

Reamer, F. G. (1990). Ethical dilemmas in social service (2nd ed.). New York: Columbia University Press.

Reamer, F. G. (1995). Ethics and values. In R. L. Edwards (Ed.-in-Chief), Encyclopedia of social work (19th ed., Vol. 1, pp. 893-902). Washington, DC: NASW Press.

Reamer, F. G. (1998). Ethical standards in social work: A critical review of the NASW code of ethics. Washington, DC: NASW Press.

Reamer, F. G. (2000). The social work ethics audit: A risk-management strategy. Social Work, 45, 355-366.

Rhodes, M. L. (1986). Ethical dilemmas in social work practice. Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Robison, C. (1995, November 16). Long wait for justice pays off. Houston Chronicle, pp. 1A, 16A.

Schneider, B., & Bowen, D. E. (1993). The service organization: Human resource management is crucial. Organizational Dynamics, 21, 39-52.

U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board, Office of Merit Systems Review and Studies. (1984). Blowing the whistle in the federal government: Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Whistleblower Protection Law, P.L. 99-500, 100 Stat. 1783-162 (1989).

Wineman, D., & James, A. (1969). The advocacy challenge to schools of social work. Social Work, 14, 23-32.

Zastrow, C., & Kirst-Ashman, K. K. (1997). Understanding human behavior and the social environment (4th ed.). Chicago: Nelson-Hall.

Annette D. Greene, LMSW, is executive director, Metropolitan One Church, One Child of Texas, Inc., 7102 North Main Street, Houston. Jean Kantambu Latting, PhD, LMSW, is professor, Graduate School of Social Work, University of Houston, Houston, TX 77204; e-mail: The authors wish to acknowledge the careful review of earlier versions of this manuscript by Judith L. Jones, Maureen McGlone, Carole Marmell, V. Jean Ramsey, Virginia Cook Robbins, Melissa Simon, Candace Spearman, Dnika Jones Travis, and two anonymous reviewers. Direct all correspondence to Dr. Latting.

Original manuscript received November 2, 1998

Final revision received August 8, 2000

Accepted September 26, 2000
COPYRIGHT 2004 National Association of Social Workers
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2004 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Greene, Annette D.; Latting, Jean Kantambu
Publication:Social Work
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 1, 2004
Previous Article:Presence of social workers in nongovernment organizations.
Next Article:A qualitative investigation of adherence issues for men who are HIV positive.

Related Articles
Why your company should have a whistleblowing policy.
Will new law result in more whistle blowing? (Ethics).
Whistle-blower protection programs for associations.
Debating a whistle-blower protection act for employees of the government of Canada.
National homogeneity vs. regional specificity: an examination of the Canadian cultural mosaic and whistle-blowing */L'homogeneite nationale versus la...
When should you blow the whistle for ethical reasons?
A new approach to examining whistle-blowing: the influence of cognitions and anger.
It seems logical that a good manager would want to deal with "dirty laundry" inside the organization before there were any negative headlines--or...

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2019 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters