By: Allan Edward Barsky, MSW, JD, Ph.D.
Rod Blagojevich, Mary McArty, Joseph Eggelletion, Bernie Madoff, Tiger Woods, Umar Farouk Abdul Mutallab, Father Thomas Naughton, Geralyn Graham...these are but a few names associated with recent scandals in government, banking, education, sports, international terrorism, the church, and social services.
Whether it is a politician accepting bribes or misappropriating public funds, a financial advisor defrauding investors, a golfer who has extramarital affairs, an airline passenger with explosives in his underwear, a trusted clergyperson molesting children, or a child welfare worker charged with murder, we often wonder: how could this happen? Didn’t someone know, and how much suffering and anguish could we have avoided if those who knew what was going on had confronted the person or told appropriate authorities sooner?
On the other hand, how does society view people who snitch; tattle; or turn on friends, family members, co-workers, or others in trusting relationships? Children learn at a young age not to be tattle-tales. Adults—even social workers—retain these lessons and understand the social stigma that goes along with being seen as a snitch. They may also have difficulty differentiating what is idle gossip, what is betraying a trust, and what is taking morally positive action to correct a wrongdoing and to protect others from being harmed.
As advocates for social justice and the welfare of clients, social workers should be among the forefront of whistle blowers (Greene & Latting, 2004; Mansbach & Bachner, 2008). So, what types of guidance does the NASW Code of Ethics (2008) provide for social workers with regard to whistle blowing? Actually, the Code does not specifically mention whistle blowing. The Code does identify “respect for the inherent dignity and worth of the person” as a core principle for social work. The Code also says that social workers should respect a client’s right to privacy (Standard 1.07[a]). But is whistle blowing tantamount to showing disrespect and violating a client’s right to privacy? Standard 1.07 gives social workers some guidance about when to report (blow the whistle) when they suspect child abuse or neglect, or when a client is at risk of committing suicide or homicide. However, the Code does not give much guidance on whether, when, and how to blow the whistle in other circumstances—particularly circumstances in which social workers become aware of illegal or unethical practices by government officials, business people, clergy, or other non-clients.
Perhaps the most specific guidance in the Code in relation to whistle blowing comes in relation to impairment, incompetence, or unethical conduct of social work colleagues. Standard 2.09 provides social workers with an ethical obligation to act when they are aware of colleagues who are experiencing various forms of impairment that are affecting their ability to provide services. Note that before “blowing the whistle” on such colleagues, social workers should first consult directly with the colleague and offer assistance with remedial action. Then, if the colleague does not take sufficient remedial steps, the worker should “take action through appropriate channels established by employers, agencies, NASW, licensing and regulatory bodies, and other professional organizations.” Standards 2.10 and 2.11 provide similar guidance for situations involving colleagues who are acting in incompetent or unethical manners.
One of the greatest challenges in whistle blowing arises in relation to unethical practices that are supported by one’s employers or supervisors. Assume that you become aware that the executive director of your organization is using agency funds for personal purposes. Whereas you might believe that the right thing to do is to talk to this person, you may be afraid to do so (Stone, Patton, & Heen, 1999). Further, if you go to the media or police, you might be putting your own job in jeopardy. Rather than taking a stand for what is right, you may convince yourself:
The director does a lot of good work and is being underpaid, so she probably deserves the resources she is taking;
The misappropriation of agency resources for personal purposes is no big deal—lots of people do it;
If it’s my word against the director’s, nobody will believe me;
I don’t have strong enough evidence, so it is not worth pursuing;
I can’t afford to lose my job;
I don’t have the time or energy to pursue this matter; or
Nobody likes a snitch and I am not a snitch.
Despite the many reasons that we may have for not taking a stand against unethical or risky conduct, we—as professional social workers—need to be able to summon the moral courage to do what is right. Moral courage refers to the bravery to do what is right, knowing that one’s actions could lead to negative consequences for the actor. Moral courage does not mean acting in a manner that is self-destructive or becoming a martyr for a cause (Government Accountability Project, n.d.). We use moral courage to correct a wrong, to pre-empt or mitigate harm, to safeguard vulnerable populations, or to hold people accountable for unethical or harmful actions. Thus, the key question is not simply “Should I blow the whistle?” but “How can I blow the whistle in a manner that is most likely to achieve my goals and minimize risks to myself and others?”
One of the most critical suggestions for whistle blowers is to access support. When facing difficult ethical decisions, social workers should not anguish alone. They should consult with attorneys, supervisors, ethics experts, or even family and friends (depending on the nature of the issue and whether client confidentiality is a concern). Whereas it may seem daunting for a single individual to confront an employer, supervisor, or corrupt bureaucracy, there is greater security in numbers. The people engaged in unethical or risky conduct may have more difficulty scapegoating or attacking when a group, rather than a lone whistle blower, is involved. Members of a “whistle blower’s support group” can provide different types of help, including moral support, legal advice, strategic advice, collegial support, money, and other tangible resources (Barsky, 2010).
For instance, attorneys can advise about the possibility of legal protections for the whistle blower (e.g., Whistleblower Protection Act, 1989, as amended 2007). Supervisors can provide guidance on how to manage risk (Reamer, 2008) and the most appropriate courses of action to deal with ethical conflicts (McAuliffe & Sudbery, 2005). Ethics committees and other ethics experts can provide consultation on how to confirm and respond to ethical violations. If confidentiality issues are not at stake, the whistle blowers may also speak with family and friends who could offer a sympathetic ear and moral encouragement.
Financial support may be particularly important for people who put their jobs at risk by blowing the whistle. To manage such risks, the whistle blower might consider searching for a new job, saving money, or finding a potential “angel” to provide financial assistance should the whistle blower be fired. Prepare for the worst, but plan for the best. The news for whistle blowers is not all bad. Some whistle blowers are well rewarded, financially and morally, for their heroic actions.
And what about social workers who are concerned that they will be labeled as a snitch? Perhaps it is time for social workers to start reframing whistle blowers as moral leaders, socially conscious heroes, and courageous advocates for what is right.
Barsky, A. E. (2010). Social work values and ethics: A comprehensive approach for a comprehensive curriculum. New York: Oxford University Press.
Government Accountability Project. (n.d.). Courage without martyrdom: The whistle-blower’s guide. Retrieved January 8, 2010 from http://www.whistleblower.org/template/page.cfm?page_id=43.
Greene, A. D., & Latting, J. K. (2004). Whistle-blowing as a form of advocacy: Guidelines for the practitioner and organization. Social Work, 49 (2), 219–230.
Mansbach, A., & Bachner, Y. G. (2008). On the readiness of social work students to blow the whistle to protect the client’s interests. Journal of Social Work Values and Ethics, 5 (2). Retrieved March 21, 2009, from http://www.socialworker.com/jswve/content/blogcategory/18/65.
McAuliffe, D., & Sudbery, J. (2005). “Who do I tell?” Support and consultation in cases of ethical conflict. Journal of Social Work, 5 (1), 21–43.
National Association of Social Workers. (2008). Code of ethics. Washington, DC: Author.
Reamer, F. G. (2008). Social workers’ management of error: Ethical and risk management issues. Families in Society, 89 (1), 61–68.
Stone, D., Patton, B., & Heen, S. (1999). Difficult conversations: How to discuss what matters most. New York: Penguin.
Whistleblower Protection Act. (1989, as amended 2007). 5 U.S.C. §2302.
Allan Edward Barsky, MSW, JD, Ph.D., is a professor of social work at Florida Atlantic University and a member of the National Ethics Committee of the National Association of Social Workers. His book authorships include Conflict Resolution for the Helping Professions (Brooks/Cole) and Ethics and Values in Social Work (Oxford University Press).
This article originally appeared in the Summer 2010 issue of THE NEW SOCIAL WORKER (Vo. 17, No. 3).