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Eye on Ethics

Blowing the Whistle Should You or Shouldn’t You?
By Frederic G. Reamer, PhD
Social Work Today
July 22, 2002

Frank M. is the executive director of a prominent substance abuse treatment program that offers both residential and outpatient services. He supervises a staff that includes three social workers and four paraprofessionals.

One of the social workers, Lydia S., who also serves as the program’s assistant director, is concerned that Frank is misappropriating funds allocated to the program by the state mental health agency. The funds are to be used to provide clinical services to dually diagnosed clients. According to Lydia, Frank is using a significant portion of the state’s funds fraudulently to pay for new furniture in his office and personal travel.

Lydia is unsure about her ethical duty. On one hand, she is distressed and angry about Frank’s clearly unethical behavior; Frank is using, for self-serving purposes, funds earmarked for much-needed clinical services. On the other hand, Lydia is reluctant to notify public officials about Frank’s misconduct. She is afraid that blowing the whistle on Frank will be disruptive and jeopardize the program’s financial stability.

Unfortunately, social workers, like all professionals, sometimes encounter wrongdoing by colleagues. Decisions about whether to blow the whistle in these situations can be among the most difficult ethical dilemmas practitioners face.

On the surface, whistle-blowing entails a choice between silence and full-scale disclosure of collegial misconduct. As with so many ethical dilemmas, however, many shades of grey exist between the black-and-white options.

Social workers generally believe that, when feasible, they should first approach their “misbehaving” colleague in an attempt to resolve the problem informally. Of course, this path is appropriate only when the misconduct is not severe or egregious. When this constructive approach fails or is unrealistic, social workers are obligated to consider more assertive steps, which may eventually entail formal whistle-blowing—that is, the notification of individuals and organizations in a position to address the issue. In fact, this two-stage approach is reflected in the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) Code of Ethics:

• “Social workers who believe that a colleague has acted unethically should seek resolution by discussing their concerns with the colleague when feasible and when such discussion is likely to be productive.” (Standard 2.11[c])

• “When necessary, social workers who believe that a colleague has acted unethically should take action through appropriate formal channels [such as contacting a state licensing board or regulatory body, an NASW committee on inquiry, or other professional ethics committees].” (Standard 2.11[d])

When attempts to resolve unethical behavior through direct discussion with colleagues who appear to have behaved unethically are impossible or ineffective, social workers must consider the possibility of blowing the whistle. This decision can be difficult. While whistle-blowing may be necessary to protect clients and social service agencies, it also can have powerful and harmful ramifications on colleagues’ careers, agency morale, and even whistle-blowers themselves.

Before blowing the whistle, social workers should ask themselves several compelling questions: First, “What are my motives? Am I disclosing information to authorities about my colleague because of my genuine and sincere concern for clients and the agency, or is it a convenient opportunity for retribution—to ‘pay back’ a colleague with whom I have had some conflict?” To justify whistle-blowing, social workers must be confident that their motives are noble, not self-serving.

Second, potential whistle-blowers should ask themselves, “How strong is the evidence of misconduct?” Social workers should allocate greater weight to compelling, incontrovertible evidence and exercise caution in the face of equivocal, circumstantial, and hearsay evidence. In light of the often serious consequences of whistle-blowing, social workers should feel confident that their allegations rest on a solid evidentiary foundation.

Third, “Have I pursued every feasible and reasonable alternative to full-scale whistle-blowing?” Social workers should carefully consider the extent to which they have made genuine, forthright attempts to discuss concerns with colleagues who are or appear to be involved in misconduct. Intermediate steps—which may involve mediation and various forms of corrective action, such as strict supervision, restitution, and continuing education—are sometimes reasonable alternatives to formal whistle-blowing.

The final question concerns the extent to which social workers’ whistle-blowing is likely to be effective and produce meaningful reform and change. “Are outside parties in a position to address the issue, or would the whistle-blowing result only in toxic publicity and bruised reputations?”

On a more practical note, social workers who consider blowing the whistle on a colleague should keep in mind the liability risk associated with defamation of character. Such defamation occurs when a social worker makes a statement about another person that is false, the social worker knew or should have known that the statement was false, and the communication caused some kind of injury (for example, the colleague was fired or disciplined, or the colleague’s professional reputation was sullied).

Defamation can take two forms: libel and slander. Libel refers to harmful written statements (for example, if a social worker circulates a written memo falsely accusing a colleague of ethical misconduct). Slander is when the information is conveyed orally (for example, when a social worker makes accusing statements during the course of a staff meeting in the presence of other agency employees). Thus, for risk-management purposes, social workers who consider blowing the whistle should be certain that any written or oral statements are factual. As lawyers assert, “Truth is an absolute defense to a charge of defamation.”

One of the unpleasant facts of any profession is that practitioners occasionally encounter colleagues involved in some kind of unethical behavior. The good news is that practitioner misconduct is relatively rare; the bad news is that it occurs at all. In many instances, constructive incremental steps short of formal whistle-blowing successfully resolve the problem; colleagues acknowledge errors and take sincere, meaningful steps to address them and to protect clients and the agency. In extreme circumstances, when intermediate steps are not feasible or likely to be ineffective, social workers may need to consider whistle-blowing. Before producing the whistle’s shrill, however, responsible social workers carefully examine their motives, the quality of the evidence of misconduct, the extent to which they have pursued reasonable alternatives, and the likelihood that whistle-blowing will produce significant results.

— Frederic G. Reamer, PhD, is a professor in the graduate program of the School of Social Work, Rhode Island College. He is the author of many books and articles, and his research has addressed mental health, healthcare, criminal justice, and professional ethics.