Whistleblowers don’t just risk their jobs to expose bad practices at
companies and institutions. They also risk having the public think of
them as traitors and rats.
“Evidence suggests that society questions the legitimacy of
whistleblowers, despite legal protections now in place in some
countries,” says Hervé Stolowy, professor of accounting and management
control at HEC Paris. Stolowy researched the topic with
Yves Gendron, a professor of accounting from Université Laval in
Québec, Canada; Jodie Moll, a senior lecturer at Alliance Manchester
Business School in the U.K.; and Luc Paugam, an associate
professor of accounting and management control at HEC Paris.
Anticipating that they will be viewed in a negative light, whistleblowers
“build the legitimacy of their role by bringing it to the
public’s attention, tightly defining their actions, and demonstrating
its importance,” says Stolowy. The difficulties whistleblowers face
are illustrated by the recent case of Wells Fargo, where employees
who denounced its fraudulent business practices were intimidated
by the management hierarchy.
The researchers studied statements from seven high-profile
cases, including those of Enron and WorldCom. They concluded that, no matter how their own stories turned out, all whistleblowers
had one element in common: They all acted with the public interest
in mind. For this reason, institutions should encourage and protect
whistleblowers so that they can serve the public good.
“Building the Legitimacy of Whistleblowers: A Multi-Case
Discourse Analysis” is forthcoming in Contemporary Accounting