While researching for our “Witness to Wrongdoing” series on corporate whistleblowers, I searched for synonyms for the word whistleblower. Turns out its a loaded term, one that conjures up images of rats, snitches, and backstabbers.
The word traces back to the late 1880s, when police officers used whistles to alert citizens to crime or riots. Referees in sports matches were also called whistleblowers because they blew the whistle on infractions.
Whistleblower has morphed into a word that refers to someone inside an organization who has exposed wrongdoing. And that is a positive thing. But the term is also heavy with the implication the person blowing the whistle is betraying his or her organization, its culture, and fellow colleagues.
Carrie Penman, chief risk and compliance officer at NAVEX Global, has argued for years that whistleblowing is a negative term for a positive act. She suggested whistleblowers be called “reporters,” since that is what they are doing: reporting wrongdoing.
“[W]hy do we stick a derogatory and intimidating label on an employee who is just doing what we ask and train them to do?” Penman asked in an essay first written in 2016 and updated in 2019. “It sounds like we don’t really mean it and we would rather that they don’t speak up at all.”
Penman’s point is a crucial one. We encourage whistleblowers to report wrongdoing, but the very word we use to describe them sets them apart, isolates them, and ostracizes them.
Not to play armchair psychologist, but that could be because those in charge often don’t want the bad news, even when they supposedly ask for it.
It would be difficult—if not impossible—to completely replace the term whistleblower with a neutral or even positive alternative. As Penman points out, the word has been codified by U.S. government and regulatory agencies; changing it might create confusion.
But internally, companies have great latitude in what they can call people who report wrongdoing. Instead of a whistleblower hotline, why not an “ethics hotline” or “integrity helpline,” as Penman suggests.
Here’s an activity you could try during your next compliance training session: Unpack the term whistleblower with your team. Ask them for synonyms that spring to mind when they hear the word. Their answers could be a litmus test of how your organization’s employees view the word, the act of whistleblowing, and even the entire process.
And if your organization wants to encourage whistleblowing, maybe it’s time to cast the term aside and use something different. Here are a few suggestions:
- Reporter. As discussed, reporter describes what the employee does—file a report—without any negative baggage.
- Witness. Although the word has a legal meaning in a courtroom, it also connotates standing up for someone, as well as telling the truth.
- Relator. This is the legal term used for whistleblowers in False Claims Act cases. It doesn’t have any of the emotional baggage carried by the term whistleblower—but it also doesn’t have as much meaning to the average person.
- Upstander. Everyone knows what a bystander is—typically an innocent victim in a crime, or in some cases, someone who is complicit in a crime because they took no action. “An ‘upstander’ is someone who recognizes when something is wrong and acts to make it right,” according to The Bully Project, which hands out “Upstander” badges to kids for doing the right thing in a bullying situation. Whistleblowers don’t need badges, but it would be nice if the word describing their positive action was, itself, also positive.
- Bringing the light. Novelist and journalist David Klein suggested several alternative words for whistleblower in a 2019 blog post, including lightcaster; lightmaker (a play on rainmaker); and “Lumiere,” the French word for light.
“Whistleblowers expose wrongdoing. They shine a light on corruption that those in power want to keep hidden,” Klein wrote.
Does your organization already have an alternative term for whistleblower? Or should the word remain in place? Share your thoughts in the comment section below.
CW whistleblower series: ‘Witness to Wrongdoing’
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Encouraging whistleblowing could mean casting the word aside