The history of whistleblowing

Whistleblowing is a concept that needs to be normalized - so we need to know where it comes from and to know its history.

04-04-2023 - 5 minute read. Posted in: whistleblowing.

The history of whistleblowing

Whistleblowing is an important part of a company and the scheme aims to create a sense of security and open communication between all employees. But how did the whistleblowing scheme and the phenomenon itself start? Here we take a look at the history of whistleblowing to help us understand what it is.

The system we take for granted

Whistleblowing has long been taken for granted. You might think that only larger organizations have whistleblowers who report wrongdoing as soon as it happens. However, it is an element that every workplace should have. The whistleblowing scheme creates a transparency in the workplace that benefits all employees.

Fortunately, it is now the case that many companies are introducing whistleblowing schemes. We also have a blog post highlighting the benefits of having a whistleblowing scheme in your organization.

The future of whistleblowing is getting brighter with time and with the awareness that is being created around it, it is becoming normalized. In addition, the EU aims to standardize whistleblowing with its Whistleblowing Directive, which aims to normalize whistleblowing in EU countries.

A concept with a history

To begin with, the whistleblowing term was used in the 19th century. In English, the term describes a person who simply blew a whistle (see 'whistle' and 'blower'). The term was used in its most literal sense.

Later in the 19th century, the term was used to refer to sports referees who, as is well known, use the whistle to indicate various judgments in a sports match. The term retained its literal meaning until the 20th century, when it began to take on a new meaning.

Indeed, it was not until around 1930 that the new meaning, that we know today, became apparent. The metaphorical meaning became attached to the term, indicating a person who reported wrongdoing, or someone who wanted the public's focus on a specific case.

It was thus in the mid-20th century that the phenomenon became more widely known and took on the meaning it has today. With the shift in the meaning of whistleblowing, the use of "whistleblower" was minimized in sport.

"Whistleblower" started as a referee in various sports and ended up describing a person who reports wrongdoing in the workplace. Basically, the core of the term has been retained, as wrongdoing is brought to light - whether on the football pitch or in the workplace. Misconducts are highlighted.

The first known example of whistleblowing as we know it today

The whistleblowing phenomenon as we know it is not a phenomenon that didn't the light of day until the 1930s. The principle of reporting wrongdoing has been around for a long time, but without a descriptive term for the action.

Therefore, it is also difficult to determine exactly when the first whistleblower case took place, as it is conceivable, for example, that there could have been whistleblowers in the heyday of the Roman Empire. But these cases have never been documented. However, a case from 1777 in the United States has been recorded, making it the first documented whistleblower case.

This case took place just one year after the founding of the United States. Two American naval officers, Richard Marven and Samuel Shaw, saw their commanding officer, Esek Hopkins, torture British prisoners of war. It was an act that the two officers believed to be improper and wrong.

Therefore, the two officers went to their superiors and reported the incident. At this time, it was a rare sight to see two subordinates reporting a superior officer, as hierarchy and loyalty to commanders was essential.

In 1777, there was not the same protection of whistleblowers as there is with a whistleblower scheme now. So back then, you risked serious consequences for reporting wrongdoing - even if it was the right thing to do, you could be fired by a superior for reporting them.

Important support

Marven and Shaw did not have the same protection that we have today when we whistleblow. Both naval officers were suspended from their positions. In addition, the commanding officer also reported the two officers for libel, which led to prison sentences.

The two officers went to Congress for support, explaining the situation and why they had reported their commanding officer. The Continental Congress unanimously passed the country's first whistleblower law to protect whistleblowers. This came into force in 1778.

The two officers were released after a year and their commanding officer was fired from his post. Marven and Shaw ultimately won the case.

Marven and Shaw's case thus marked the beginning of the whistleblowing system as we know it today. At the time, they followed their intuition and duty to the community, rather than loyalty to a senior officer, and evidently reported a senior officer for defamation. They knew the consequences for defamation, but reported Hopkins anyway - this was the start of a future of more open and honest communication.

The present day has learned from the early days of whistleblowing and protects employees when they report misconduct in the workplace. Many whistleblowers over the years have had to go through legal proceedings without the protection of the whistleblowing scheme.

Therefore, you should not be afraid of whistleblowing because we need to normalise the phenomenon. The benefits of whistleblowing are many and it creates a safer and more transparent workplace where responsibility lies with the individual employee.

Fortunately, reporting wrongdoing has become easier. Therefore, if you experience something that you believe is morally and ethically wrong, you are encouraged to report it. The whistleblowing scheme helps to protect whistleblowers from retaliation, and thus supports loyalty to the company you work for. In other words, reporting misconduct helps the company to build a safe and secure working environment.

Author Caroline Preisler

Caroline Preisler

Caroline is a copywriter here at Moxso beside her education. She is doing her Master's in English and specializes in translation and the psychology of language. Both fields deal with communication between people and how to create a common understanding - these elements are incorporated into the copywriting work she does here at Moxso.

View all posts by Caroline Preisler

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