Cultural Attitudes Towards Whistleblowing: Why Do They Differ and How Can We Change Them?

We believe that whistleblowing is, above all else, an incredibly courageous act. It requires bravery and conviction to call out wrongdoing in the face of fear and possible retaliation. However, that opinion isn’t always shared across different cultures. 

In some countries, in the EU and around the world, there remains an overwhelming mistrust of whistleblowers — a holdover from totalitarian regimes and “us and them” community mindsets. 

In this article, we examine these varying cultural attitudes towards whistleblowing, explain why they differ and persist today, and suggest ways you, as a company leader, can help change them.  

A brief history of cultural mistrust in whistleblowing

In the recent past, whistleblowing was met with suspicion and cynicism. In some countries, whistleblowers were essentially informants used by the authorities to gain information on resistance movements or political rivals. Intimidation, spying, and denunciation tactics were employed to encourage citizens to turn in friends, classmates, neighbours, colleagues and family members if they were even mildly critical of the governing party. 

Elsewhere, there was a general mistrust of public authorities in countries with a history of occupying forces and organised crime, such as Ireland and Italy. Speaking out against a neighbour or colleague was frowned upon and went against the “us and them” mindset of the community.

As a result, the idea of reporting wrongdoing has been ingrained with negative connotations in many of these countries. 

And this mistrust continues to this day.

The stigma attached to whistleblowing still lingers, as evidenced by the language and associations used when referring to the act: 

  • In the Czech Republic, Ireland, Romania, and Slovakia, “whistleblower” is associated with being an informant.
  • In Bulgaria and Italy, it’s associated with being a traitor or spy.
  • In Hungary, Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania, it’s associated with being a snitch.
  • In the US, both Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning were vilified and accused of being traitors by politicians. 

In many cases, the mistrust of whistleblowers is a learned behaviour. Families and communities have passed down the belief that speaking up is dangerous or treacherous, and it’s safer to stay quiet. Meanwhile, in the case of Snowden and Manning, while public perception of their actions was largely positive, the reaction of those in power could make potential whistleblowers think twice about speaking out.

Ultimately, the historic feeling that making a report (even if it’s to report wrongdoing) is “wrong” could contribute to fewer people blowing the whistle in these countries. 

Why social acceptance of whistleblowing matters

If we’re to see more people raise their voices and point out misconduct across the globe, whistleblowing must become more socially acceptable. 

In some parts of the world, this is already happening. An EU report found that in France, Italy, Germany, Sweden, Portugal, and the UK, the majority (ranging from 63% to 74%) believed whistleblowing was socially acceptable. However, in Bulgaria, Croatia, Hungary, and Lithuania, just 15% of citizens felt the same. 

Without that groundswell of opinion that blowing the whistle is the right thing to do, many would-be whistleblowers feel pressured to stay quiet. Therefore, corruption goes unchecked for longer, often putting people at risk.  

How do we inspire a cultural shift towards social acceptance?

A change in mindset is vital to combating cultural mistrust and reframing whistleblowing as a positive, socially acceptable action. And the good news is, the seeds have been sown to help this happen. 

A variety of surveys and research suggest that more and more people are coming around to the idea that blowing the whistle on misconduct is the right thing to do — and doesn’t make them “rats,” “informants,” or “snitches.”

Yet, while these numbers are encouraging, some significant obstacles remain. Fear of retaliation and reputational damage, possible financial and legal consequences, and a lack of faith that leaders will correct the reported wrongdoing keep would-be whistleblowers quiet. 

The emotional toll of blowing the whistle also can’t be overstated. Even if someone feels they’ve done the right thing, it can still cause stress, guilt, and anxiety. 

New legislation (like the EU Whistleblowing Directive) and new technology (like NorthWhistle’s whistleblowing app) may help calm these fears in the short term. 

Technology, in particular, will have a major role to play. Before the law steps in and assures the whistleblower that they’re in the right and entitled to protection, they may have already suffered severe emotional, financial, or reputational damage. Whistleblowing software can help minimise or even prevent this damage by putting the whistleblower in control and protecting their identity from the outset. 

However, to overcome these issues entirely, more must be done to change attitudes and instil confidence in the whistleblowing process. This will require a huge shift in workplace culture, reinforcing trust in reporting procedures. Company leaders can no longer pay lip service to whistleblowing — they must lead by example.

4 actions you can take to change the conversation around whistleblowing

As a leader within your organisation, there are several practical things you can do to build trust among your employees and increase social acceptance of whistleblowing:

  • Champion a speak-up culture: A “speak-up” culture is one where employees feel safe to raise concerns about any misconduct they witness or experience. This might take the shape of employees highlighting wrongdoing to their line manager or superiors. But it should also include more formal whistleblowing policies and procedures, such as anonymously reporting issues to industry regulators. 
  • Clearly signpost whistleblower information: Update your website or company intranet to provide employees with whistleblowing details, including recommended internal and external whistleblowing channels, the steps they can take to confidentially report concerns, and how they’ll be protected against retaliation for whistleblowing.
  • Implement a user-friendly reporting tool: Introduce a whistleblowing app to anonymise the process and increase confidence around disclosures. The system must put the whistleblower in control, allowing them to exclude case handlers and others who might have been involved with the reported incident.

    Doing so will protect their identity and also enhance the impartiality of your case handling. NorthWhistle’s professional whistleblowing system allows you to manage incoming reports easily, thanks to built-in reminders, a clear overview, and 1:1 communication.
  • Measure your program: Finally, start tracking important whistleblowing metrics to ensure reports are being followed and resolved in a timely manner.

Furthermore, research shows that supportive leaders are the best safeguard against bullying and harassment, which suggests they’re willing to listen to reports of misconduct and act upon them accordingly. In other words, good leaders are already responding to whistleblowers — something that requires more focus and encouragement in the future in the shape of whistleblowing training to make this the norm rather than the exception.

In Summary

If we’re to fundamentally change these cultural attitudes towards whistleblowing, we must continue to shout about the positive role whistleblowers have when reporting and preventing wrongdoing. 

Ultimately, this requires ongoing information campaigns among the general public and within target groups in these countries, such as policymakers, journalists, trade unions, and key decision-makers in public and private organisations. 

These campaigns must help grow awareness of whistleblowing and improve its public perception, shaping it as an admirable, necessary, and socially acceptable act. 

The EU Directive and other legislation like it are a start, but they’re only a start. As a leader within your organisation, you have the opportunity to change the conversation around whistleblowing. Don’t let it pass you by.

This article draws from our 2023 Report for Healthier Workplaces. Experts in EU legislation, leadership, Public Value Governance, organisational psychology, and strategic HR help us dive deeper into these cultural attitudes and their impact on groups and individuals in the workplace.
Download the report here for free.