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Whistle Blowing

A whistleblower is someone that raises a concern about a wrongdoing that is happening in their company or organization. There are many things that the whistleblower can reveal such as the breaking of laws, exposing fraud, corruption, or health and safety violations. These allegations can expressed to the people that run the company or organization and they can be expressed to the outside world such as the media or law enforcement.

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The whistleblower normally faces reprisal from their company, related organizations, or sometimes from the law.

Whistle blowing happens when people get caught between business and social responsibility. They have to decide what is best for the business and what is best for the world. In the Insider Big tobacco denies that nicotine is an addictive drug. Jeff Wigand is a tobacco executive and has to decide whether or not give an interview with 60 minutes about cigarettes and if nicotine is and addictive drug or not. Jeff signed a confidentiality agreement with his company saying that he will not disclose any information about nicotine.

Even though he is fired and receives death threats, Jeff decides to give the interview and whistle blow on his company by exposing the facts about nicotine that his company was hiding. There are three elements in whistle blowing and when these elements are combined they make whistle blowing very bitter and distaste full. They are dissent, accusation, and breach of loyalty. Dissent is a disagreement with a superior or the majority which can be hard to do in a work environment.

Whistle blowing’s dissent is shedding light on a risk and assigning responsibility for the risk. The whistleblower also accuses someone of who is often higher on the corporate ladder than him. When he accuses this person it is like he calls that person a foul and that gets the strongest reaction from that person and they try to defend themselves. The whistleblower is calling out his own colleagues and this is seen as a breach of loyalty because he has certain obligations to his colleagues and this loyalty is put against the public interest.

There are many different views on when it is appropriate to whistle blow. Michael McFarland uses a study by Simon, Powers, and Gunneman that there are four factors that must be present in order to morally require someone to go and help another person. They are that there is a critical need for the help, is within the “network of social relations” which means a person duty to family, friends and so on, the ability to help without damage to self, and the lack of other sources of help.

McFarland states suggests that engineers should be held to a higher standard of social responsibility than ordinary individuals but the responsibility should be dispersed among all of the members of the engineering society instead of just an individual engineer. He uses the example of Kitty Genovese. Kitty was murdered and many people in her apartment building either watched or listened and did nothing. It has been argued that had the neighbors banned together they could have prevented the murder. McFarland uses this example to show that when no other sources of help are available that engineers should take responsibility by banding together.

McFarland encourages engineers to change their thinking of individual responsibility to the responsibility of the engineering profession on a broader level. Richard De George states that loyalty to the company is the most important thing for a person to have. He gives three requirements for a person to have permissibility to whistle blow which are as follows. If harm to the public will be serous and considerable, if the person informs their superiors of the problem and nothing is done, and if the person informs everyone above them on the cooperate ladder and nothing is done.

George also gives requirements for when whistle blowing is a moral obligation of a person. They include the three previously stated requirements and that the person has documentation about their concern and that there is strong evidence that making their concerns know to the public will stop the problem. This seems like good criteria for a person to whistle blow but this approach can take a long time to complete because sometimes informing all the people above the whistleblower on the cooperate ladder can be an extensive process. This caused the Challenger disaster.

The shuttle that was launched prior to the challenger had many time because of weather and mechanical factors. NASA did not want delay the launch of the Challenger so the launch pad could be refurbished on time and so it would launch at the same time as President Reagan gave his State of the Union address. The Challenger uses solid rocket boosters with solid fuel to overcome Earth’s gravity. These boosters are assembled with four segments that are held together by two O rings. The O rings keep hot gas from escaping from the motor.

Heat putty is used to separate the rubber rings and the hot gases. Engineers discover that the O rings may not be able to keep the boosters sealed at temperatures lower than 40o F and they brought this up to their superiors. The superiors disagreed and thought that the O rings would hold regardless of the temperature. The night before the launch the temperature dropped greatly below the safety limits of the O rings. Ice formed on the pad and some fell on a booster cooling it to 28o F causing the seal to fail. The shuttle was launched and fifty nine seconds later the shuttle exploded.

Had the engineers whistle blowed instead of bringing up the problem all of their superiors then the shuttle may have not launched. While they did not have enough low temperature data to prove that it was dangerous to launch, they also did not have enough data to prove that it was safe enough to launch. Had they gone to the media there may have been enough public support against the launch for NASA to delay it. We will never know. What we do know is that informing all of the engineer’s superiors took too long and the engineers did not have enough time to try and find another way to stop the shuttle launch.

The National Society of Professional Engineers’ Code of Ethics for engineers has six fundamental cannons that state that for engineers to fulfill their professional duties they must, hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public, perform services only in areas of their competence, issue public statements only in an objective and truthful manner, act for each employer or client as faithful agents or trustees, avoid deceptive acts, and conduct themselves honorably, responsibly, ethically, and lawfully so as to enhance the honor, reputation, and usefulness of the profession.

The first principle states that an engineer has the duty to the public’s safety, health and welfare before a duty to a client or employer. This keeps an engineer protected in the event of whistle blowing. Some codes even go as far as disciplining or revoking the engineer’s license if the engineer fails to report something that the engineer knew was not in the public’s best interest.

Having this principle in the Code of Ethics has help justify whistle blowing by engineers and has the courts often side with engineer, overruling confidentiality agreements and duties to employers that in the past would have prevented the engineer from speaking out. I believe that whistle blowing is a necessary part of being an engineer. It gives the engineer some power over the company or organization that has hired them.

If the company fears that the engineer may go and tell the public things that the company does that are harmful to the public, the company will try to avoid doing things that are harmful to the public. While whistle blowing is often times distasteful and hard to do, it is often a necessity. There are companies in the world that only care about making a profit and do not worry about the public’s health.

These companies need the help of engineers to design their projects which gives the engineers insight that the public will not have. While the engineers have loyalty to the company that they work for, it is also the engineers’ duty to the public to make sure that the company acts in the public’s best interest. And if the engineers can not convince the company that what they are doing is wrong, then it is time to bring the act to the public’s attention.