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Anyone can whistle – so why is the exceptional not more ordinary?

Date posted
05 April 2024
Chris Davis
Estimated reading time
3 minute read

The figure of the whistleblower has had some notable and notorious incarnations over the years, writes IOSH’s Dr Christopher Davis. Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning, Maria Efimova are among recent examples. And while these individuals have provided blockbuster stories – perhaps justifiably so, says Dr Davis, given the scale of secrecy and cover-ups they exposed – their stories elevate the term ‘whistleblower’ to something exceptional.

Yet the mixed esteem with which the whistleblower term is regarded is reflected by its varied synonyms – informant, tattletail, snitch. Non-English equivalents are equally mixed. The Italian “corvo” (crow), Portuguese “bufo” (snitch), or Estonian “vilepuhuja” (piper) all carry negative connotations.

Ultimately, these less-than-favourable expressions, used across different languages, suggest a societal ambivalence about the idea of someone breaking ranks, not following the crowd, and speaking up. This needn’t be the case. The whistleblower, clued-up about what fairness and justice look like in the workplace, are increasingly valuable (and comparatively inexpensive) standard-bearers for good businesses.

Whistleblowers in the modern workplace could – and probably should – refer to any individual willing to speak up when they sense that their employer’s actions are harmful. Fraud? Yes. Environmental damage? Absolutely. A lack of respect and recognition for workers’ safety, health, and wellbeing? One hundred per cent.

After all, this is an era when we talk frequently about psychological safety, corporate transparency, social responsibility, ethical business practice, EDI (equality, diversity and inclusion), and so on. The voice of ordinary workers is a central component of all of these. The whistleblower shouldn’t be an exceptional figure at a time when, by all accounts, businesses have their eyes and ears open to potential wrongdoing in their ranks, and when workers’ voices are so frequently encouraged.


Several questions come to mind, though. How able to speak up do workers really feel? What safeguards are in place when they do so? And how favourably are workers’ voices received by management and leadership when discomforting truths are brought to light.

My sense is that, while many businesses recognise the value of worker voice in principle, far fewer really know how to harness it. And when it comes to something like whistleblowing, which many businesses will have a policy for, many of these policies will cater primarily for rare occasions where significant wrongs are exposed, not more commonplace issues that workers might want to raise concerns about: bullying, overwork and unsafe conditions, for example.

Without question, the occupational safety and health of all workers is well served by individuals feeling confident enough to blow the whistle on what they believe is harmful to them or their fellow workers.

Indeed, the appetite for worker voice in modern business should reinvent the idea and associations of the whistleblower, so that he or she becomes thought of as “the ethical signaller”. An individual needn’t be treated with suspicion when they feel compelled to speak up or to speak out.

Even terms like these take us back into the semantics. Speaking “up” or speaking “out” suggests an act of defiance against an employer. Instead, it may simply be the marker of a worker reaching out to the ethical authority within a business for support. It is a learning opportunity. As such, it’s time that leaders, managers, and any others within earshot of workers, listened out for the sound of the whistle – and felt encouraged rather than spooked by what they hear.

Last updated: 10 April 2024

Chris Davis

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