The Challenger disaster. On January 28, 1986, the Space
Shuttle Challenger exploded 72 seconds into its flight, killing
crew members. The flight had received unusual publicity due to the
presence on board of a teacher, Christa McAuliffe, who had been
chosen following a nationwide competition. The explosion was caused
by failure of the O-ring seals between segments of the booster
rockets. A subsequent investigation revealed that several employees
of the manufacturer, Thiokol, had been aware of O-ring deficiencies.
Dissent within Thiokol. The safety of the booster rockets'
performance at low temperatures had been questioned by Roger
Boisjoly, a seal specialist at Thiokol, and Allan McDonald, the
manager of the solid-rocket motor program. Boisjoly had directed a
task force for a year to cope with evidence that hot gases were
eroding the rubber O rings. On July 31, 1985, he wrote a
memorandum saying, "it is my honest and very real fear that if we
do not take immediate action to solve the problem," the company could
"stand in jeopardy of losing a flight." The worst O-ring erosion had
occurred in a flight the year before when the temperature was 53°.
Boisjoly thought there was a link between the temperature and
erosion. But neither he nor McDonald could measure it. The absence
of conclusive evidence undercut their warnings.
By early in the afternoon of January 27, after a launching was
scrubbed, McDonald was
getting worried about temperatures dropping to
22° overnight. An anonymous senior engineer told reporters that
fourteen Thiokol engineers "fought like hell" to get permission for a
presentation to NASA. In the evening, mid-level NASA officials and
reviewed the evidence. All fourteen Thiokol
engineers recommended postponing the launch the following morning.
NASA officials Larry Mulloy and George Hardy challenged the
recommendation. Mulloy, manager of booster programs, questioned the
engineers' technical judgment. "My god, Thiokol, when do you want me
to launch, next April?" he exclaimed. Hardy said the engineers'
recommendation "appalled" him. Thiokol's management reversed the
recommendation for postponement.
Immediate aftermath. After the explosion,
public with his account of the hours that led up to the disaster. He
was demoted by management. But public outcry and a
investigation led to a reversal of that decision, and a promotion
instead. He emerged as the spokesman for Thiokol and its newly
redesigned rocket boosters. He focused his energy on getting the
shuttle flying again, not allowing himself to dwell on the past. On
the other hand, a few weeks after the explosion, Boisjoly wrote, "I
hope and pray that I have not risked my job and family security by
being honest in my conviction." He told friends he could never work
on the shuttle again because it was all too painful. He wondered out
loud if there was anything else he could have done to stop the
launch, although the investigation showed his warnings minced no
Later repercussions. Partway through his testimony before
Congressional committees, Thiokol reassigned Boisjoly. Following
intense criticism, he was reinstated, but his responsibilities were
altered. NASA's inspector general investigated the situation and
concluded that his testimony did not lead to his reassignment.
Boisjoly then took a leave of absence. About a year later, he went
on long-term disability and his paychecks stopped. Boisjoly sued
Thiokol for $1 billion, and sought to recover $2 billion for the
taxpayers in another suit.
The $2-billion suit was filed under the False Claims Act, saying
that Thiokol falsely certified safety, that they knew that the
rockets they supplied to NASA were defective. (The False Claims Act
is a Civil-War era law, stemming from President Lincoln's efforts to
stop Civil War profiteers.) However, the suits were dismissed in
1988. The judge ruled that decision to launch was not a false claim,
but just an engineering judgment with which other engineers
disagreed. NASA, the judge concluded, also, knew the facts behind
the allegations, and thus could not have been deceived. Boisjoly's
personal suit was dismissed because Thiokol's actions were ruled not
to have been designed to cause him distress.
Situations calling for whistleblowing. There are many
situations that can call for whistleblowing. Take, for example,
software piracy. Suppose you find out that others are taking
proprietary software off of bulletin boards? Or that a co-worker has
inserted a back door or booby-trap in software that your project is
writing? For example, (s)he might have put in a booby trap to assure
that he'll get paid for the project. The Digital Equipment
Corporation once put a booby trap in a beta-test version of a
wordprocessor. On April 1 a year later, it was to crash and erase
the current file. By then, all users were supposed to have bought
the real version.
Is it OK to do that? What problems can it cause? Suppose the
ultimate user paid for the program from a retailer, who had sold his
own beta-test copy? The programmer who created the booby trap could
be held liable. The same is true of a "back door," for example, to
evade encryption. What is the right thing to do? Warn of the
existence of the trap? Defuse it? If you warn someone, whom should
About fifteen years ago at NCSU, a student working in a lab was given
the job of backing up disks. While doing that, he stumbled on
evidence that the professor directing lab was diverting research
funds to prop up his business, which was in financial difficulty. He
asked someone "about the level of a dean" if he was interested. The
dean said he certainly was. The professor was fired, and, fearing
retaliation, the student became afraid to take courses from anyone
who was associated with the lab.
Suppose your supervisor promises that your team will complete a
task by a date that you consider unrealistic. Should you warn
customers? Or, sales personnel may promise performance levels for
your product that you consider unrealistic. But, isn't advertising
hype pretty common? Back in the early 1980s, a computer writer by
the name of Ross quit a project to write book about the Coleco Adam.
The public-relations department said capacity of a diskette drive was
500K. But that was unformatted; the formatted capacity was only
250K. He thought the public-relations department had deliberately
misrepresented it, so he quit.
Where is the line crossed? Is unreasonable optimism unethical?
Well, advertising obviously can't go into full detail about a
product's capabilities. But the full specs should at least be
available to potential clients. Ross suggests quitting your job if
your company intentionally misleads customers. Protesting to your
boss probably wouldn't do much good; your boss knows about it anyway.
Besides, with that kind of ethics, your employer might not be around
Consider the case of Bret McDanel. While working for Tornado
Development, Inc., on Web-based e-mail and voicemail systems, he noticed that their
software displayed a user's login credentials as part of the URL shown in
the address bar of the Web browser. Not only did that mean it could be
observed by passersby, but it also meant that the next Website the user
visited could capture his or her login credentials in its log of the
"referring" URL. Thus, anyone who was authorized to read the second
Web site's logs could use that login and password to access the user's
McDanel unsuccessfully protested to his boss. Then he took Ross's
advice and quit his job. However, he retained
an account on Tornado's system and used it to send a single anonymous
e-mail message to 5600 of its customers, describing the flaw and directing
them to a Web site he had set up to provide more information. Tornado then
fixed the problem. However, they also went to federal prosecutors, who
charged McDanel with violating the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act--the same
act used to prosecute Robert Morris and other virus- and worm-writers. The
prosecutors reasoned that
McDanel had caused damage to Tornado's computer system by overloading its
e-mail server and spamming its users. He was convicted and served 16
months in jail. The case came to the attention of faculty at Stanford
University's Center for the Internet and Society. The executive director
appealed on McDanel's behalf, and the government asked the appeals court to
reverse the decision. In a highly unusual development, the federal
prosecutors agreed, and asked the appeals court to set aside the
conviction, which it subsequently did.
Risks of whistleblowing. As the McDanel case illustrates,
whistleblowing rarely works out well for the whistleblower. Joseph
D. Whitson, a supervisory chemist at Brooks Air Force Base in Texas, says
he was told to falsify drug tests. Some commanders would call him, he
says, and give him names of people they "knew" were doing drugs. He was
told to make the tests come up positive. At a 1984 drug trial, he was
called to testify. On the day of the trial, just 1 month after he had
received a nearly perfect performance rating, he was removed from his
office and relegated to a dreary basement lab used for animal radiation
testing. By January 1985, his job was abolished. Two years later, he was
working as a mid-level government statistician. His wife was working
part-time to help pay off his legal expenses.
Remember the Resolution Trust Corporation, from the aftermath of
the savings & loan debacle? One of their lawyers, Bruce
Pederson, had his computer disks searched, after charging that the
RTC was going easy on some S&L executives. He claimed that the
cover-up was due to political pressure, perhaps from the (first) Bush
administration. His superiors claimed that he was upset about not
remaining a manager when the RTC started closing field offices, after
successfully liquidating or merging failed thrifts. An e-mail
message from his superior, Barbara Shangraw, said, "I have been
requested by D. C. to get into Bruce Pederson's WordPerfect. Please
copy into a directory for me what Bruce has in his Word Perfect."
Pederson said Shangraw then warned him not to use his computer for
personal work. She said she had found personal letters to friends,
material about a townhouse, and a Freedom of Information Act
complaint. Pederson said that Freedom of Information Act material
was related to a grievance he had pending against the RTC.
A survey of whistleblowers was taken by Donald R. Soeken, a
whistleblower himself. Out of 233 individuals polled, about 40%
responded. Their average age was 47. They had been employed at
their jobs for an average of 6.5 years before blowing the whistle.
Almost all of those in private industry lost their jobs.
percent of government employees
lost their jobs. Eighty-two percent
said they'd been harassed by superiors, and 69% said they were
watched closely. Sixty-three percent reported losing some job
responsibilities, and 60% said they were fired after launching their
complaints. Almost 10% had attempted suicide. Only 20% felt that
their actions resulted in positive changes in their workplace. But
more than half of them said they would do it again.
Legal protections. Workers in private industry are covered
by more than 12 statutes designed to help them expose health and
safety violations. The broadest is the Occupational Safety and
Health Act, under which 2900 complaints were handled in 1986.
Federal employees are covered under Civil Service Reform Act of 1978.
Many states have provided direct support to whistleblowers. These
states have recognized a "public policy exception" to the traditional
doctrine that employers can fire workers without cause. In these
states, a worker can't be discharged for engaging in an activity that
public policy encourages, or for not engaging in an activity that
public policy discourages.
At least 30 states have adopted "whistleblower protection"
statutes. About half of these apply both to public and
private-sector employers. But, these laws are rarely used. Not very
many employees are aware of them. If they do reveal potential
abuses, they are unlikely to learn about the laws before the statute
of limitations expires--often within the first month after
their dismissal or other reprisal.
But there are risks of making whistleblowing easier. A
recalcitrant employee could use it to combat effective management
practices. Suppose a disgruntled employee files a frivolous claim.
A company could incur substantial expense in fighting it, and
irreparable injury to its reputation. In the defense industry, some
whistleblowers have become instant millionaires from legal actions.
Judgments like this threaten the existence of small defense
The ethical dilemma of whistleblowing. Whistleblowing
usually poses an ethical dilemma. As professionals, engineers live
by codes of ethics that give them a responsibility to protect the
safety, health, and welfare of the public. As employees of
corporations, they have an obligation to respect the authority of
managers who sometimes give insufficient attention to safety matters.
There are at least three different approaches to whistleblowing
ethics. The first is that whistleblowers "rat" on their company, and
undermine teamwork based on the hierarchy of authority within the
corporation. Their views may be correct, but final decisions belong
to management, not engineers. Just as there are Biblical passages
that tell us to obey the existing civil authorities, this view holds,
we should also defer to authority in the workplace.
A second view is that whistleblowing is a
tragedy to be avoided.
In certain cases, it may be a necessary evil, but it almost always
bad news all around. It is proof of organizational trouble. It
threatens the careers of managers, disrupts collegiality (because
colleagues resent the whistleblower), and damages the informal
network of friends at the workplace. If the whistleblower has been a
loyal employee for several years, it will be painful, like the
disintegration of a marriage. And it brings severe penalties to
The third view is that
whistleblowing is an obligation when
serious and considerable harm to public is involved. One must first
report the harm and express moral concern to one's immediate
superior. Before whistleblowing, one must exhaust other channels
within the corporation. It is necessary to have "documented
evidence" that would convince a reasonable impartial observer that
one's view is correct, and "good reasons to believe that by going
public the necessary changes will be brought about."
How to blow the whistle. Before blowing the whistle, here
are some tests to apply. The first is the "mom" test: I'm going to
be in this industry a long time. But I will be in different roles in
different companies. Will this damage my reputation with my boss,
colleagues, future customers or employers, etc.? The second is the
test of personal responsibility. Engineers have personal obligations
to their family, as well as other obligations, that can only be met
if they have an income. One's spouse has a right to participate in
decision of whether to whistleblow. Engineers also have the right to
pursue a career. These responsibilities may make it permissible not
to whistleblow even when most of the factors above would seem to
mandate it. Utilitarianism says we should weigh these two factors.
Will harm avoided be greater than harm incurred?
If you need to blow the whistle, here are some guidelines to
follow. Do it anonymously; in those cases where the evidence can
stand on its own, this will protect you from reprisal. Do it in a
group. Then your charges will have more weight, and probably won't
be seen as a personal vendetta. Another principle is to present just
the evidence; leave the interpretation of facts to others. Then you
probably won't get blamed for blackballing others.
Work through channels, if you can. Go to your immediate
supervisor first. Many companies and agencies, for example, NASA,
have set up mechanisms to document and prevent dangerous situations.
The NASA Safety Reporting System has a written form that any employee
can complete and mail to Battelle Institute, an independent
contractor to NASA. Battelle processes the form, removes the
identity of the informant, and prepares a summary for NASA.
If internal review procedures do not work, external mechanisms must
be resorted to. These usually result in
great cost to the employee
Most employees who "go public" have
already gone through internal channels, so it is unlikely that their
identity can be kept secret. Going public makes the whistleblower
seem insubordinate. Documenting allegations may require the release
of internal reports. The dissenter can be charged with theft or
violating confidentiality agreements.
Avoiding the need for whistleblowing. As most of us know,
it's not a good idea to marry in haste. Take the time, and choose
the right person; then you reduce your chances of going through a
divorce later on. When taking a job, choose the right organization.
If the organization has an "open door" policy, ask if it is ever
used. If not, it is probably a channel that no one dare use. Using
such a channel will probably be treated as whistleblowing. An
organization described as "one happy family" should be examined with
special care. Like families, organizations generally have tensions.
An organization that recalls only the good times is not one that
never has bad times, but one that has no use for bad news. Is better
if old battles can be recalled, but happiness inferred from the fact
that all are still working together.
Reduce the need that you will have to whistleblow. Develop
informal channels to augment formal channels. Get to know someone
who has more clout with your manager, but has common interests with
you. Form alliances with colleagues and subordinates. Avoid the
need to stand alone against a superior. Group concerns are treated
more seriously. But, the group should be sensitive to moral concerns
that force one to blow the whistle.
Organizations that are most in need of whistleblowing are likely
to cause employees to become morally desensitized. So you will
probably need to cultivate the moral sensitivity of potential allies.
For example, you could bring in articles from the newspaper that
raise questions similar to the ones you could face. Discuss them at
lunch. Try to get your professional society to host discussions
dealing with ethical problems that come up in their work. Learn how
to present bad news in a way that is likely to get a favorable
response. Present it clearly, with enough technical detail. Develop
your communication skills. Many people probably become
whistleblowers because they did not pay enough attention to feelings
Clearly, whistleblowing is a decision not to be taken lightly.
Now is the time to prepare ourselves so that we can avoid the need in
the future. But if it does become necessary, we need to be aware of
the risks, and above all, of our obligations to our families, our
professions, and the public.