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Incentivizing Whistleblowing in the Workplace

Blog Response of Steven King a Student at The Open Polytechnic of New Zealand

The following blog is from a reply to my blog on "Incentivizing Whistleblowing in the Workplace." Steven King, a student at The Open Polytechnic of New Zealand, sent in the reply for a business ethics assignment. Given the thoroughness of his reply and counterpoint to my original one posted on February 8, 2012, I dedcided to post it as a separate blog. Thank you, Steven, for your contribution.

Firstly, I would like to address your point concerning the importance
of motives when considering whether an act of whistleblowing is
morally justifiable. Your statement, “I believe it [whistleblowing]
is an ethically acceptable practice as long as the whistle-blower,
first and foremost, is motivated to act in the public interest and
with the intent to right a wrong” implies that in order for an act of
whistleblowing to be morally justified it must be done for the right
intentions. Hence, your argument states that for whistleblowing to be
ethically acceptable, it must be done out of moral duty (or based on
morally permissible motives) rather then for selfish motives such as
for financial reward or to exact revenge upon an organisation for some
wrong doing. I would disagree with this argument and argue that it is
not necessary to have morally appropriate motivations in order for an
act of whistleblowing to be morally justified. From a utilitarianism
viewpoint, an act of whistleblowing would be morally permissible if
the option to blow the whistle would produce the greatest amount of
happiness and the least amount of harm regardless of what the motives
behind the action are (Open Polytechnic, 2012). That is to say that
from a utilitarianism position it is possible to perform an action
that is morally justifiable for immoral motives (Carson, Verdu and
Wokutch, 2008). To use an example, let’s suppose an employer was
involved in some unlawful activity that would harm a significant
number of people if it was not made public. If an employee was to
blow the whistle in order to exact revenge upon their employer for
some prior wrong doing, despite saving a significant number of people
from harm in the process, would the act of whistleblowing be morally
wrong because it saves people from harm for the wrong reasons? (Carson
et al., 2008) It would seem illogical to say that making the right
decision for the wrong reasons makes the decision wrong (Bouville,
2008). To conclude this point, I would argue that motives are
irrelevant when considering the morality of an action and instead
motives are more likely to determine the moral worth of the agent
acting as appose to whether or not the action itself is ethical or not
(Carson et al., 2008).

Moreover, let’s suppose that the act of incentivizing whistleblowing
indeed turns out to have a morally corrupting affect on potential
whistleblowers, leading some employees to “spy on company actions,
aggressively trace questionable transactions, and gather evidence of
wrongdoing even if it has nothing to do with that employee’s job
responsibilities” and hence results in an increase in cases of
whistleblowing based on selfish motives. Even so, I would argue that
the act of incentivizing whistleblowing is morally right on the
grounds that the overall benefit to the public (by motivating
potential whistleblowers and deterring unethical behavior) would far
outweigh the harm caused by morally corrupting certain whistleblowers.
For instance, in cases where potential whistleblowers who have
genuine moral motives for blowing the whistle but who otherwise would
not have blown the whistle out of fear of reprisal or fear of loosing
their career, by incentivizing whistleblowing, this will likely
encourage those to blow the whistle who would not have done so
otherwise (Carson et al., 2008). So although there will likely be
cases of ‘employee spying’ and incidences of whistleblowing based on
selfish motives, these incidences will likely be countered by an
increase in morally motivated whistleblowing cases that otherwise
would not have been reported. Most importantly, this is likely to
create a powerful deterrent for unethical behavior by business.
Hence, by motivating potential whistleblowers (and most importantly
deterring unethical behavior from business), this will increase the
likeliness that the public will be saved from harm and hence the
overall benefit to the public good would far outweigh any harm caused
by morally corrupting potential whistleblowers.

Finally, I would disagree with your statement, “From an ethical
perspective this would be wrong as it violates the loyalty obligation
of an employee to the employer” and argue that an employee does not
have a moral obligation of loyalty to their employer at all on the
grounds that a corporation is not the type of entity that can be an
object of loyalty (Duska, 1990). For instance, obligations of loyalty
can only exist between real people who have entered into a special
relationship with one another such as relationships between family
members or friends. In these relationships where obligations of
loyalty exist, the loyalty works both ways and hence both parties are
bound together for the mutual enrichment of each party (Duska, 1990).
In contrast, a relationship between an employee and a company is not
bound by mutual enrichment but for the self interest of each party.
That is, a company is in the relationship to make a profit, whilst the
employee is in the relationship to get paid (Duska, 1990). Because
loyalty is a tie between two parties that requires each party to
sacrifice self-interest, it is for this reason that a corporation
cannot be an object of loyalty and hence an employee does not owe an
obligation of loyalty to their employer (Duska, 1990). This does not
mean to say that whistleblowing does not require moral justification
at all, but instead, in my view, an act of whistleblowing cannot be
deemed morally unjustifiable on the grounds that it undermines an
employees’ obligation of loyalty to their employer.


Bouville, M. (2008). Whistle-blowing and Morality. Journal of Business
Ethics, 81, 579-585.

Carson, T. L., Verdu, M. E. & Wokutch, R. E. (2008). Whistle-blowing
for Profit: An Ethical Analysis of the Federal False Claims Act.
Journal of Business Ethics, 77, 361-376.

Duska, R. F. (1990). Whistleblowing and employee loyalty. In J. R.
Desjardins & J. J. McCall (Eds.), Contemporary issues in business
ethics (2nd ed., pp. 142-147). Belmont CA: Wadsworth.

The Open Polytechnic of New Zealand. (2012). 71203 Business Ethics.
Lower Hutt, NZ: Author.

Blog posted on Februaty 11, 2013