The Whistleblower’s Dilemma – An Alternative to Silence


The significance of the challenges faced by often the most conscientious people in an organisation are discussed in an article ‘The Whistleblower’s Dilemma” by EBENI Chair Julian Clarke, published in Ireland’s “The Sunday Business Post” newspaper in 1999.

The full text of the article is at the foot of this section and the original piece from The Sunday Business Post is here:

The Whistleblower’s Dilemma 991017

And a Transparency International Ireland report advocating Whistleblower Protection legislation:

Alternative to Silence et al – Transparency International Ireland

Now a further discussion of this topic:


“DOING THE RIGHT THING” can often be one of life’s greatest challenges, but what is the right thing to do when a person with a strong conscience becomes aware of instances when other people chose to do the wrong thing, notably when this negatively impacts on others?

A DILEMMA has been described as “a predicament that seemingly defies a satisfactory solution”. Knowledge of a wrongdoing can put someone in a difficult position, especially if those responsible fail to take appropriate steps to properly rectify the situation.

The initial tendency of the culpable can often be to COVER UP rather than OWN UP, resulting in a potentially catastrophic impact on interpersonal trust and organisational reputation should the wrongdoing subsequently come to light. When it does, those who chose to Cover Up may have preferred they had chosen the more courageous option of Owning Up or, better still, avoided risky deeds of dubious integrity in the first place.

How can they be avoided and ongoing relationships safeguarded? Considering the potential impact on TRUST & REPUTATION before engaging in a dubious action ASSUMING IT WILL BE FOUND OUT can prevent such calamities arising.

Somehow too many people assume their covert acts will remain just that – secret. Yet when they are found out the initial tendency often seems to be both DENYING THE UNDENIABLE and JUSTIFYING THE UNJUSTIFIABLE, neither of which do anything positive or constructive for the image of the people involved or the organisation itself.

Surely it would have been preferable to have avoided this situation in the first place?

Viewing the DAMAGE as being done when the wrongdoing in any shape or form is engaged in rather than when eventually found out may help prevent recurrence.

Comparing the apparent benefit from the more dubious act with both not doing it and the potential consequences of being “found out” may provide a sufficient deterrent to those more inclined to engage in some form of wrongdoing.

Many others in society just wouldn’t even contemplate doing so, the kind of people organisations need as managers and leaders.

When the act is engaged in though to “get one over” other people, to seek some form of “revenge” and be seen to “win” against them, rather than produce anything really positive for the organisation itself, perhaps this makes the “benefit” arising from being “spiteful” more dubious and even more important the action be avoided. “Winning at all costs” can have significant costs which when compared with the benefits may make the necessity to “win” appear less significant or worthwhile.

In stark contrast with those COMBATIVE (or maybe even DISORDERED) LEADERS more motivated by “getting their own way” and “winning at all costs” than truly “doing the right thing” for the organisation which trusts them to prioritise its interests, not their own,  ASTUTE LEADERS recognise the importance of BUILDING and MAINTAINING relationships rather than DAMAGING them, that organisations especially businesses need people to come back for more and recommend what they received to others, than go away after an unsatisfactory situation and not only never return but advise others not to do so either.

ASTUTE LEADERS recognise the value of turning around a situation where a relationship has been damaged, as a restored relationship can transpire to be an even stronger one. Mutual respect may be even be enhanced.

Such  leaders recognise the benefits of collaboration and cooperation, are very adept at understanding what may motivate the other people involved and how best to rebuild a previously good relationship which may then go from strength to strength.

They are also adept at FORGIVING people for hasty words or deeds which they may have regretted later and which they did not fully consider before saying or doing something.

KIND people especially managers and leaders with EMPATHY and HUMILITY find it far easier to “forgive and forget” and move on from a situation, whereas more fundamentally PROUD and sometimes highly COMBATIVE managers and leaders thrive on CONFLICT, both with coworkers and external stakeholders.

People FEAR rather than respect them and some leaders even want their own people to be intimidated by them. Does this really inspire others to produce their best, or just do what they are told?

The necessity of highly COMPETITIVE people to GET THEIR OWN WAY and WIN AT ALL COSTS often overrides any other considerations, including the best outcome for their organisation, even though such an approach damages relationships, perhaps irreparably.

As such an approach to both life and business can result not only  in lost friendships, but also CUSTOMERS, SUPPLIERS and other STAKEHOLDERS no longer wanting to do business with them or their organisation ever again, and perhaps even advising others against doing so too, and EMPLOYEES considering having to BLOW THE WHISTLE on malpractices, are these really situations and outcomes EXPECTED OF LEADERS?

Indeed in such situations the aggrieved parties may even consider some form of RETALIATION or RETRIBUTION, especially if led by the same type of COMBATIVE people.

In such situations was WINNING really worthwhile? More astute coworkers might consider whether indeed anything worthwhile was actually achieved at all – other than “getting one over” another?

Yet society still elects such people to seniority of position.

Surely WINNING in business involves building ONGOING RELATIONSHIPS, not damaging them?

So how can we spot in advance the people more likely to ASTUTELY and SAFELY lead organisations and differentiate these from those more capable of DAMAGING interpersonal trust and RISKING the organisation’s perhaps hard won reputation, developed over the years by wise predecessors who could tell the difference between short term gain and long term reputation?

Read on…

The PERSONALITY of some people builds trust and engenders a welcoming, inclusive and cooperative working environment while that of others results in a more challenging and competitive culture which may lead some more conscientious colleagues to conclude that after their internal efforts have failed they may need to report wrongdoing externally.

Wim Vandekerckhove describes a whistleblower as “a person who exposes any kind of information or activity that is deemed illegal, unethical, or not correct within an organisation that is either private or public”.

This 1999 article from Ireland’s Sunday Business Post newspaper discusses the challenges those who consider exposing wrongdoing may face. Potentially becoming vulnerable to retaliation, having their motives and loyalty challenged and private lives damaged when the Cover Up is exposed, particularly when the wrongdoers choose to diminish their prospects of reputational recovery by responding in the manner which Crisis Communication experts least recommend – “Attacking the Accuser”, can place good people  in the situation of facing “the whistleblower’s dilemma”.

Weighed up against these consequences, many people of integrity nevertheless often choose what they see as the greater good associated with “doing the right thing”.

But to whom does ultimate loyalty lie?


Whistleblowing was a significant section of the EBEN RESEARCH CONFERENCE held in Dublin in June 2011 entitled  ‘Does Integrity Matter?’ and has become an issue again in Ireland recently.

Indeed perhaps it will always be relevant in any jurisdiction when any form of wrongdoing “that is deemed illegal, unethical, or not correct within an organisation that is either private or public” is not dealt with in a manner more likely to augment rather than damage those two critical pillars of both business and society itself: TRUST AND REPUTATION.

Many whistleblowers do not seek to become whistleblowers. They are often people of strong conscience who care deeply for their organisation and want to see “the right thing done”.

This can pose a greater than necessary challenge when some in authority (the “smartest guys in the room”) believe it is smarter to engage in further wrongdoing by engaging in cover up, especially when this involves further deception.

With Crisis Communication experts advocating OWNING UP over COVERING UP, history has proven the benefits of choosing this course of action involving SHORTER TERM PAIN BUT LONGER TERM GAIN in terms of potentially enhanced reputation.

When those who not only cover up also engage in the intimidation of those who try to rectify the matter constructively with integrity, they may assume their actions will never be “found out”. But when their attempts at being covert are reported externally, as they are more often than the intimidators anticipate, they may well find that they chose APPARENT SHORT TERM GAIN at the expense of LONGER TERM PAIN.

When TRUST is damaged, perhaps irreparably, people often opt to take their business elsewhere.

Socrates likened trust and reputation to a fire – easy to keep kindled but far more difficult to relight when extinguished. Those who seriously consider covering up, deception and intimidation to maintain silence and secrecy, would do well to consider “what might the outcome be if the situation does become public?” before they make their final decision.

When the leaders of the grouping lack the foresight or perhaps courage to “do the right thing”, it may take courageous colleagues to “speak up” and perhaps “make a stand” internally if the matter is to be dealt with admirably, preferably with the support of a number of colleagues with the wisdom to prioritise the LONG TERM REPUTATION of the entity over the PRIDE of a few individuals, no matter how senior. People come and go but (well managed) the organisation should continue, EXCEPT if its leaders risk significantly damaging the reputation which may have taken many others many years to build.

World War II leader Montgomery – not known to be the easiest person to get along with – said “one man can lose me a battle”, proving the necessity for leaders to have dependable colleagues who share the organisational values to assist her or him lead the organisation with integrity.

But “one man can lose me a battle” also confirms the importance of choosing leaders who possess the many admirable values associated with being “people of integrity”, which it is argued here includes possessing a genuine interest in the people the leader or manager actually leads. Meaning empathy, present in some but not all managers and leaders.

When the leader himself or herself does not stand for the most admirable qualities expected of a leader, the very survival of the entity may even be potentially at risk, although this may not be a concern of leaders who thrive on taking risks, immune to the downsides.

It is only when matters which may risk damaging TRUST  and REPUTATION are NOT handled with INTEGRITY internally, that conscientious people may begin to consider the necessity to report the matter externally or publicly.

When such people “who expose any kind of information or activity deemed illegal, unethical, or not correct within an organisation that is either private or public” are criticised, ostracised and intimidated, rather than praised, applauded and protected, there really is something wrong with the organisational culture and the integrity of the leaders.

The degree of personal integrity of an organisation’s dominant individuals contributes significantly to the prevailing level of corporate integrity, with some cultures facilitating and promoting and others prohibiting and hindering the personal integrity of employees coming to the fore.

Intolerance of low integrity by leaders of high personal integrity ensures unethical instances are not condoned or repeated, while the acceptance of low integrity by lesser leaders ensures instances are permitted and hence more likely to recur by the corporate culture prevalent within their organisation.

Of course some people may have the wrong motive in trying to expose wrongdoing, such as revenge against an individual rather then trying to prevent recurrence, ensure justice prevails or just to “do the right thing”, but even in such situations PREVENTION IS BETTER THAN CURE.

It is better to prevent the wrongdoing arising in the first place by building a culture where any form wrongdoing is not condoned and, by not being accepted, diminishes, than let it occur and then fail to act to prevent its recurrence, compounded by punishing those who try to improve matters rather than praising and even promoting them. Leadership needs such people managing their organisation – not being diminished by it.

Many people who do “SPEAK UP”, both internally and externally, appreciate this takes not only INTEGRITY but also COURAGE as they know they may PERSONALLY face sometimes damaging consequences.

But only when the CULTURE permits this to happen, especially when this is overly aggressive and confrontational and leaders fail to lead by example or practice what they preach. When BLAME and RECRIMINATION is permitted to play a significant role in an organisation when errors arise and mistakes are made, people will tend to remain silent, watch out for themselves and ultimately the mistakes which are either never spoken about or covered up may recur and ultimately it is the organisation and its variety of stakeholders which suffers.

Even those managers who believe themselves to be infallible make mistakes, although they cannot accept this themselves, so given the inevitability that they will first blame others and try and shift rather than accept responsibility, then the opportunity arises to handle the matters in a sensible and BLAME-FREE MANNER so that people in the future will be ENCOURAGED to own up to mistakes, trivial and significant, so the organisation as a whole progresses in the right direction.

When bosses own up to their errors, coworkers will be encouraged to do the same. The aim should be learning from mistakes rather then denying them and hence perhaps repeating them.

People with the COURAGE to OWN UP should be encouraged and PROMOTED and those who lack the INTEGRITY to do so and who COVER-UP and INTIMIDATE should never be promoted to seniority of position and the organisation may be better off without them, no matter their other strengths and qualities.

It is such INTIMIDATORY people who damage the organisational culture and make people not look forward to coming in to work, more likely to produce their worst than their best. So why are such people employed and promoted by so many organisations????

When the CULTURE is unnecessarily NEGATIVE, COMPETITIVE and even COMBATIVE, rather than POSITIVE, CONSTRUCTIVE AND COOPERATIVE, WHISTLEBLOWING may be seen by those who really care for the organisation to be more necessary, than in an entity whereby OWNING UP to error and mistake is encouraged rather than discouraged and hence people and the entire organisation LIVES, LEARNS and PROGRESSES.

Perhaps the mindset and “dispositional attribution” of managers and leaders plays an inordinate role in the culture which leads to whistleblowers whistleblowing??

As GIVERS and TAKERS also under TOPICS on this website suggests:

When leaders respect other people, treat them fairly and behave selflessly with integrity, showing a genuine interest in everyone else involved, sometimes referred to as “stakeholders”, the critical quality of trust is more likely to be developed, enhanced and remain healthy.

But when their focus is primarily and innately on themselves, there may well always be trouble around the corner, with trust and even reputation amongst the many casualties of their disrespect and resulting mis-management, erroneously described as their “leadership” of businesses, organisations and even nations.

In addition to their other leadership qualities, the personality of leaders can contribute significantly to the manner by which they lead, the example they set and in due course the culture of the entity or organisation they guide, with a concomitant effect or impact on the lives of those they have a responsibility to lead – and serve.  Not all leaders though perceive that to be their role and job description…

When organisations are led by GIVERS, more interested in others than themselves, seen by their peers as being genuinely interested in their co-workers, perhaps even SELFLESS, WELCOMING and PROUD not of themselves but of the organisation and its people, colleagues will be more likely to be ENCOURAGED to own up to errors, knowing these will be dealt with by “management” in a professional, responsible and constructive manner internally, more likely to result in ENHANCED TRUST AND REPUTATION.

When organisations are led by TAKERS, fundamentally more interested in themselves than others, seen by peers as primarily interested in themselves (no matter how well they try to disguise this), hence very SELF-CENTRED, DIFFICULT and PROUD, perhaps even PERVERSE and CONTRARY (hence it is argued make poorer managers and leaders), people will be more likely to be DISCOURAGED from raising or even owning up to errors, knowing they will be more likely to be BLAMED and perhaps even DISPARAGED for trying to “do the right thing” and INTIMIDATED against “taking the matter further”, essentially meaning the issue will be dealt with by “management”  in an unprofessional, irresponsible and destructive manner internally, more likely to result in DAMAGED TRUST AND REPUTATION.

It is in such environments that conscientious people eventually get so frustrated with the lack of remedial action to right wrongs that they consider the necessity to report matters externally to the organisation, despite probable awareness of consequences which could be personally damaging when the TAKERS do what comes most naturally to them – deny, blame, discourage and attack their accusers.

Of course errors and mistakes happen, that is inevitable, but how these are dealt with guides the direction and future “CULTURE” of the organisation. People and organisations need to learn from their mistakes, not repeat them.

“LIVING AND LEARNING” is more likely if people are encouraged to raise and discuss errors and mistakes in a positive, constructive and ultimately safe and BLAME-FREE manner, to try and not only prevent their recurrence but also build in steps and procedures aiming to ensure better practices prevail in the future.

When the organisation ENCOURAGES and PRAISES its people for trying to IMPROVE the way it conducts its affairs, it PROGRESSES and people genuinely look forward to coming in to work, knowing their talents and endeavours are appreciated.

But if errors are essentially encouraged to be covered up even internally by an unsafe and unnecessarily competitive culture, typified by BLAME and DISCOURAGEMENT, mistakes may recur.

When the organisation RUTHLESSLY DISCOURAGES its people from trying to IMPROVE the way it conducts its affairs, it REGRESSES and people look forward to leaving in the evening more than coming in to work, knowing their talents and endeavours are under or unappreciated and perhaps what they do in their personal life excites them more than what they do in their place of work.

Ultimately the best people will take their talents elsewhere.

How can the best people be persuaded to remain and make a great contribution to their organisation? Perhaps this also is dependent on the mindset of the managers and leaders they work with and for?

As far as leadership is concerned, all the intelligence in the world may be of little real value if none of it is emotional.

Developed through emotional attachment with other people, empathy is our ability to recognise, feel and respond to the needs and concerns of other people. Should that not be one of the primary prerequisites for leaders, especially of people?

So why are so few WOMEN in leadership roles, given their often far greater natural empathy and genuine concern for other people?

In many organisations women hold many middle management roles, given their ability to deal well with the people they manage, yet somehow fail to make it to the very top, led by too many men who have prioritised their own self-interest and promotion, yet lacking the empathy required to FULLY evaluate complex situations from the human as well as the computational perspective.

Sometimes it is only the toughest, more male-like women who make it to the top, yet even they may be TAKERS more innately self-centred and ambitious for themselves, less likely to bring a great deal of empathy to the senior managerial table.

“The smartest guys (and girls) in the room” may transpire to be those MEN AND WOMEN with a great deal of empathy and emotional intelligence, who along with their many other (required) talents may also be GIVERS, with a genuine interest in ALL the organisation’s people, who ENCOURAGE AND INSPIRE EVERYONE THEY DEAL WITH TO PRODUCE THEIR BEST.

The kind of people their coworkers call “the salt of the earth” and would follow to the end of the earth. As indeed Ernest Shackleton’s team did to the Antarctic – and back, without any loss of life despite very arduous circumstances including loss of their ship – given his considerable leadership abilities, notably including a great interest in each of the people he was commanding in a real “life or death” situation.

Ii is such people – GIVERS with a great deal of empathy – who when evaluating difficult situations may be more capable of taking the LONG-TERM perspective and LACKING EXCESSIVE PERSONAL PRIDE have the HUMILITY to OWN UP TO ERRORS, who set the right example and TONE AT THE TOP for everyone else to follow.

By way of their “door always being open” especially to their most CONSCIENTIOUS COWORKERS and by INCLUDING THEIR IDEAS FOR IMPROVEMENT, giving credit where due rather than taking it for themselves, GIVERS also deny those wonderful people with a strong conscience the necessity to even consider whistleblowing.

GIVERS also often possess one extraordinary quality – they TREAT EVERYONE THE SAME – irrespective of position, title, role, gender, age, race, ability – they INNATELY possess the demeanour and personality to be GENUINELY INTERESTED IN OTHER PEOPLE and take pleasure ENCOURAGING and INSPIRING them to produce their best. No matter what the type of organisation, when such people are in charge of other people, the level of cooperation is higher and there is GENUINE TEAMWORK whereby people really do want to work together to achieve common goals – the reason the entity was founded in the first place. The environment or CULTURE is WELCOMING and POSITIVE and more likely to bring out the BEST in people.

Of course it is not just WOMEN with a great deal of empathy, many MEN are also capable of showing a great and genuine interest in OTHER PEOPLE and, assuming they also possess other qualities relevant to the nature of their work in their specific organisation, it is such people who their COWORKERS enjoy following and striving to do their best to satisfy.

When GIVERS manage other people, whether as a supervisor or team leader, as a manager and senior manager and leader, their people RESPOND to the INTEREST SHOWN IN THEM by showing an interest in the leader and what she or he is trying to achieve for the organisation.

When COMMUNICATION is not only fairly OPEN and HONEST but is also ocasionally personally delivered, people are INCLUDED in what is going on and their IDEAS are sought, with a realistic chance of being considered, appreciated and implemented, the organisation is capable of going from strength to strength as it is HARNESSING THE TALENTS of its most valuable resource – its own people.

Alas it is SBT – Sad But True – that organisations FAIL to choose such admirable people for managerial and leadership roles!!! The kind of fantastic and wonderful people who encourage others to KSNMW through their difficulties – Keep Smiling No Matter What – due to their innate positivity, optimism, enthusiasm and zest for life which makes them great coworkers, sporting teammates, loyal friends and indeed partners for sharing many of life’s adventures.

Yet modest. positive, enthusiastic and often quite selfless GIVERS can be ignored for promotion in favour of the more overtly confident and sometimes arrogant traits associated with more self-centred and entirely DISLOYAL TAKERS, fundamentally only capable of only being loyal to themselves and seeking to satisfy their own goals, deeply motivated by an extraordinary degree of self-interest which in extremis can have them blinkered to everything other than “winning at all costs” and “getting their own way”?

So why then do so many organisations select people to be responsible for other people who are TAKERS far more interested in themselves than others, who are very SELECTIVE who they show an interest in, usually those they rate to be IMPORTANT especially to help them achieve their personal goals, who take pleasure being unnecessarily CRITICAL  and may even seem to enjoy PUTTING DOWN, DIMINISHING and DEMEANING OTHERS, who seldom engage in PRAISE even when most warranted, who thrive on COMPETITION even between COWORKERS, who engender a COMBATIVE CULTURE which, being unnecessarily stressful, fails to INSPIRE people who become DEMOTIVATED and ultimately produce far from their best as they cannot wait to get home in the evening?

Is it because we fail to spot these traits in people before it is too late, falsely “taken in ” by their CHARM, their INTELLIGENCE and other talents, including their SMART WORDS?

Do we mistake their arrogance and intimidatory traits as being evidence of STRENGTH of leadership when in reality such traits really are indicative of CHARACTER FLAWS?

Why do we select people for seniority of position who EXCLUDE others from information or involvement, who are INCAPABLE of taking responsibility for their mistakes and prefer to BLAME others for everything that goes wrong?

When will we appreciate that INTIMIDATION achieves little and when such people manage and lead other people they become uninspired and when senior management also fail to “do the right thing” in response to wrongdoing may in turn feel poorly managed situations lead them to consider having to BLOW THE WHISTLE?

When will we realise that research suggests people with HUMILITY rather than excessive PERSONAL PRIDE make for better leaders of people? That GIVERS more interested in others than themselves are followed by other people far more naturally than those TAKERS who cannot show a genuine interest in other people because they are innately far more interested in themselves than others, because they are lacking in empathy and warm emotions and possibly even BLINKERED to the talents, interests and aspirations of other people, are simply INAPPROPRIATE to given RESPONSIBILITY for the working lives of other people? Who believe humiliation rather than praise is the way to get people to do the work expected of them?

Yet organisations time after time continue to make this fundamental mistake and at the end of the day their organisation underperforms and when the culture is excessively challenging, forces people to seek external assistance due to internal inadequacies by way of feeling they need to BLOW THE WHISTLE on a myriad of malpractices, which LEADERS OF INTEGRITY eradicate at source and prevent from recurring?

Wouldn’t it be simpler to SPOT these TAKERS by way of what they cannot change – their own BEHAVIOUR – and either fail to employ them in the first place or deny them promotion or the opportunity to be responsible for other people, when fundamentally all they really care about is themselves?

Wouldn’t it be preferable to employ and promote those more likely to OWN UP to errors and malpractices rather than those whose first reaction is to COVER UP and who still choose to do so even after much consideration and discussion? Who engender a COMPETITIVE CULTURE and thrive on seeing people fighting with each other rather than cooperating?

As this can too often be because some people in society CANNOT TAKE ONE WORD OF CRITICISM without overreacting, often way of CRITICISING and BLAMING those less responsible, should society’s organisations not be led by those with the wisdom and humility to ACCEPT RESPONSIBILITY FOR THE MISTAKES OF OTHERS and who do their best to encourage them not to repeat them? Who LISTEN to those who report mistakes and malpractices and make a genuine effort to sort the issues with the mindset not of BLAME but OWNING UP to error and LEARNING FROM THE EXPERIENCE?

GIVERS recognise the courage it takes to SPEAK UP, so they reward those with the INTEGRITY to “TACTFULLY say what need to be said” who have a GENUINE INTEREST IN THE ORGANISATION AND IT’S PEOPLE and, when opportune, promote them to more and more senior positions in the organisation, naturally augmenting and further enhancing what the INSPIRE – a positive, encouraging and CO-OPERATIVE CORPORATE CULTURE.

So in addition to picking the right people, with the qualities further discussed in more detail in GIVERS and TAKERS, HOW do organisations try and conduct their affairs with INTEGRITY at the FOREFRONT of their decision making, sometimes at the expense of short-term profitability because of the risk of damaging trust as they WISELY prioritise ONGOING TRUSTWORTHY relationships and longer term survival and REPUTATION?

When tricky and potentially “whistleblowing” type situations occur,  the most astute management have the wisdom to both consider and act on the ten word advice from Blanchard and Peale which has proven to be very effective:


That simple wisdom has proven to be less simple to practice than advocate, but those who do so by not risking damaging the TRUST so necessary for ONGOING rather than ONE-OFF business relationships, not only safeguard the reputation of the organisations they are chosen to manage and lead, but may also sleep better at night.

As too will their co-workers, knowing anything they report INTERNALLY will be acted on responsibly and they will be encouraged to SPEAK UP, rather than be discouraged from “doing the right thing” which they may eventually consider,  having exhausted all alternatives, to include SPEAKING UP EXTERNALLY – often called WHISTLEBLOWING.

The variety of challenges faced by often the most conscientious people in an organisation are described in the following text from an article ‘The Whistleblower’s Dilemma” by EBENI Chair Julian Clarke, published in Ireland’s “The Sunday Business Post” newspaper in 1999:

The Whistleblower’s Dilemma 991017



The public rightly expects high standards from professionals, although the nature of their work may expose them to more ethical dilemmas than many other people in business.

Professionals employed in senior positions are regularly involved in making important decisions.

Yet many of these decisions aren’t easily made and may result in stressful situations for those involved, possibly why dilemmas have been well described as predicaments that seemingly defy satisfactory solution.

Damned if you do and damned if you don’t?

One of the more difficult situations is knowledge of a wrongdoing or potential wrongdoing.

It is possible to face such an ethical dilemma without having been involved in the decision making process. Merely knowing about a course of action that may not be legal, fair or honest can put someone in a difficult position.

Turn to whom?

Unfortunately most employees have few avenues to turn to for advice when faced with difficult ethical decisions or dilemmas.

Often they cannot turn to their boss for advice because frequently the request to do something wrong comes from their superior.

These situations can place considerable personal strain on the individuals and often their families too. Many believe they cannot risk their jobs by objecting, while those who do object may find their promotional opportunities limited.

Accountants’ dilemmas

Accountants in general practice and industry may face different ethical dilemmas, yet the likely downside effect may not be dissimilar – potentially the loss of either the client or tenure of employment.

Perhaps accountants in practice have an advantage in such difficult situations as at least they are in a position to discuss the situation with their colleagues and voice their concerns to their client

Company accountants, financial controllers, finance directors and chief financial officers (CFOs) may not have such a ready forum should they be faced with an ethical dilemma.

To whom can they turn?

The more senior their position in the organisation, the greater the likelihood that their colleagues may themselves be implicated in any wrongdoing or request to participate in questionable actions – the very cause of the ethical dilemma.

Unenviable choices

When facing an ethical dilemma, the choice appears to be to:

  • try and change the situation,
  • mentally isolate oneself from whatever is going on, or
  • resign.

Some are capable of ‘switching off’ in such circumstances, particularly by concentrating on their day to day responsibilities.


Yet for many the mental turmoil of continuing to work in an uncomfortable business environment can only result in one outcome – resignation.

An accountant who resigned because he didn’t want to participate in unethical actions described his situation in a letter to the CFO magazine, although the dilemma he describes could probably apply to anyone working in a responsible position:

“No one can really discuss ethics until he has been asked to do something that is unethical. Ethics has a different meaning to each of us. And I have never met anyone who didn’t believe that he or she had high morals before an ethical issue forced a certain decision.

Faced with such a dilemma, you must weigh loyalty to family against loss of employment and income. You must also deal with the frustration and stress of the situation, as well as eventually face the day of the dreaded decision. Being a CFO does not spare you this anguish. CFOs have to care for the needs of themselves, their families, their employees and professional responsibilities just like everyone else. This is a very stressful situation and a constant balancing act.

What compounds everything is that we live in a world of financial survival. Without money, no one can exist…..If you quit, you could be out of work for years. The employer will not give you a favourable reference, and who is going to hire a CFO without references? You could tell a prospective employer your dilemma, but most people don’t want to hire problems.

Once you have been through this type of ethical dilemma, you become more understanding of the motivating factors. I am a white knight who did the right thing and was out of work for 18 months, losing my self-respect in the process. Was it worth it? That is a personal question that I don’t have the answer to. But please, God, don’t offer me this choice again.”


This man had the further option of ‘blowing the whistle’ but didn’t. Although he didn’t accuse anyone of wrongdoing, he and his family suffered as a result of his decision to resign, and could have suffered further had he chosen to blow the whistle and expose the unethical behaviour.

It may be possible to try and reason with the wrongdoer and hope a change in direction will result. Yet many find it difficult to do this or to report wrong behaviour.

Why do people find it so difficult to report wrongdoing?

For many it is easier to go along with a wrong decision or action than report the wrongdoer.

Is this because the effect of whistleblowing can be severe on the whistleblower, the wrongdoer, or both?

Or because society tends not to approve of people who tell tales on others?

Maybe people feel hypocritical reporting someone for something they could have done themselves.

Does it make a difference if the effect of the wrongdoing is minor rather than major?

Or if the wrongdoer is personally known or not?

Would it be easier to blow the whistle if it were possible to do so without naming names? Or doing so anonymously?


The dilemma seems to be a conflict between wanting to be loyal to someone and wanting to correct wrongdoing.

But to whom does ultimate loyalty lie? To boss, company, its owners or oneself?

It seems loyalty to the person frequently prevails, even in cases of severe wrongdoing.

Personally known

One case where the wrongdoer was personally known and the wrongdoing was severe was the U.S. “Unabomber” who had been sending bombs anonymously through the mail for 18 years, killing three and injuring 23.

Then in 1996 David Kaczynski suspected that his brother Ted was the Unabomber and reported him. An FBI agent remarked that David “was as torn as anyone would be, between doing what is socially right and loyalty to his brother”.

Right and Wrong

In a TIME magazine interview with both brothers, David says that before discovering Ted was the Unabomber “ethical questions weren’t that important to me. But now I have all kinds of questions about other things. I thought I knew the difference between right and wrong”.

The difference between the two is often unclear – David’s decision to turn in the Unabomber may have been the ‘right’ thing to do, however ‘wrong’ it may feel to have contributed to his brother’s imprisonment.

When asked whether he feels guilty for turning Ted in, David says “Guilt suggests a very clear conviction of wrongdoing, and certainly I don’t feel that I did wrong. On the other hand, there are tremendously complicated feelings not just about the decision itself, but a lifetime of a relationship in which one brother failed to help protect another”.

In the same interview Ted was asked what would he have done had roles been reversed? He says “I would have kept it to myself”, as he believes his brother should have done.

Ted hasn’t spoken or corresponded with his brother since David ‘blew the whistle’.

Proof indeed that the effect of whistleblowing can be severe on the whistleblower, the wrongdoer, and often both.

Complexity of dilemmas

It appears what makes dilemmas so complex is that while the initial decision may be difficult, it may still not be obvious whether or not the correct course of action was chosen… even long after the event.

Maybe that uncertainty, together with the problems posed because of feelings of loyalty to the wrongdoer or the organisation, differentiates ethical dilemmas from routine business decisions.

A rock and a hard place

A dilemma is more than just having to make a difficult choice. It is also about the nature of that choice – often a trade-off between conflicting principles such as honesty and loyalty.

As a result it can be difficult to advise what should be done when facing a predicament that seemingly defies a satisfactory solution.

While commercial decisions and dilemmas both require all the facts, options, outcomes and consequences to be carefully considered, dilemmas may also involve complex value judgements and conflict of principles.

Perhaps that is why dilemmas still pose great difficulty even for experienced decision-makers.

Nevertheless General ‘Stormin’ Norman Schwarzkopf suggests this difficulty is not insurmountable:

“The truth of the matter is that you always know the right thing to do. The hard part is doing it.”

Julian Clarke is a chartered accountant and management consultant who chairs European Business Ethics Network Ireland All comment welcome to

The original article can also be downloaded from here:

The Whistleblower’s Dilemma 1999 Clarke