What is Whistleblowing? - Definition & Policy

Instructor: Yuanxin (Amy) Yang Alcocer

Amy has a master's degree in secondary education and has taught math at a public charter high school.

Anybody in the workplace need not be afraid to speak up if they see wrongdoing. They have the backing of the federally supported Whistleblower Protection Program. We'll cover what it means and the Enhancement that followed.


You work for an all-organic make-up company that promises to donate 10% of all profits to orphans in third-world countries. Now, imagine one night when you are working late, you see your boss take the money that has been reserved for the donation. What do you do? Do you tell on your boss? Or do you stay quiet?

If you told, you'd be labeled a whistleblower, someone who exposes wrongdoing whether that wrongdoing is violating laws or creating a danger to society. If you didn't tell and people found out anyway, you'd be considered as taking part of this wrongdoing.

You might be afraid to tell on your boss or anyone involved because they might fire you or make your life horrible. And this was a valid fear up until recently. This fear was especially valid for federal employees who could be punished with loss of a job, or even prison time.

What changed?

Whistleblower Protection Act of 1989

The Whistleblower Protection Act of 1989 is what changed. This act protects federal employees who expose wrongdoing from retaliation from supervisors or other management. This includes a demotion, discrimination, or punishment of some sort.

If there is retaliation linked to the whistleblowing, then the employee can call on this Act for protection and a remedy such as back pay, reinstatement, and attorney fees, among others.

The Whistleblower Protection Act of 1989 was meant to cover whistleblowing of any kind of wrongdoing, but over the years, several Federal Circuit decisions created loopholes so the Act now protected very little.

For example, in Horton v. Department of the Navy, it was held that whistleblowing to a coworker or the wrongdoer him- or herself is not protected. Other cases deleted protection if an employee disclosed wrongdoing as part of his or her job or if the disclosure is of something that is already known. In all these cases, if the employee were to experience retaliation, he or she would have no protection.

Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act of 2012

This changed in 2012 when President Obama signed into law the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act of 2012. This Act brought back the protection that had been voided through the loopholes previously. So now, federal employees have the full protection as long as they can prove that the retaliation is done in connection with a disclosure.

This is very important protection as it gives government scientists and others who come across information that could harm people the protection they need to make decisions that will keep people from getting hurt.

Case Example

One such example is that of Dr. Rosemary Johann-Liang. She used to work as the deputy director of the Division of Drug Risk Evaluation for the FDA. In February of 2006 her team of researchers noted that the top-selling drug, Avandia, was causing about 500 avoidable heart attacks per month. This drug earned $3.4 billion for GlaxoSmithKline in 2006. Now, that's a lot of money to lose.

But, since Dr. Johann-Liang had vowed to do no harm when she became a medical doctor, she took steps to recommend the drug be labeled with the strongest warning from the FDA (the black box warning) so that doctors and patients would fully understand the risks. However, her bosses ignored her recommendation, demoted her, and no longer included her in safety review meetings.

It took a year before things were handled. Unfortunately though, by that time, Dr. Johann-Liang had resigned from her position. In May 2007, the New England Journal of Medicine published research material showing how dangerous the drug is. Finally, after public outcry, the FDA finally put the black box warning on the drug.

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