Rats or Do-Gooders

The general public often sees whistleblowers as traitors.

Rats or Do-Gooders

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 Research.