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SHOW DATE: JUNE 12, 2013

When former CIA employee and intelligence contractor Edward Snowden decided to blow the whistle on a top secret NSA surveillance program, he became one of the most prominent whistleblowers in history.  In the process, he divided a nation, with some calling him a hero for speaking out about corrupt government practices and others calling him a traitor for illegally leaking top-secret information he had sworn to never disclose.

Few of us have access to the kind of juicy gossip that Snowden came across. But that doesn’t mean we won’t come across opportunities in which we feel compelled to become a less exotic kind of whistleblower.

For example: You discover that your co-worker is secretly taking three-hour lunches. Or you hear Bob take the credit for a great idea, and you’re the only one who knows that he stole the idea from a client or competitor. Or maybe you find out that your director is about to promote someone who is quietly planning to leave the firm in a couple of months.

In any of the above situations, what do you do? Are you justified in blowing the whistle, or will that backfire and come back to hurt you?

While every situation is different, and there’s no accounting for questions of individual morality and ethics, there are two questions you should be asking yourself in any circumstance to help you determine what to do:

1. Who is primary beneficiary of whistleblowing?

If the only clear beneficiary of your actions is you, then you shouldn’t blow the whistle. Chances are you are only out for personal gain, and even if that isn’t the case, that’s how it’s going to look to everyone else. So if you’re tattle-taling on your co-worker, who you also happen to be in competition with for a promotion next month, you’ll appear to be conniving, not moralistic. Long story short: if personal gain is your goal, don’t blow that whistle.

On the other hand, if the beneficiary is your firm, your group, or another important person to whom your interests are not selfishly aligned, then your intentions are pure, which is a good first step. It implies that you are seeking justice and equality, or at least doing what you were hired to do, which is to make your company be the best it can be. Proceed to question #2…

2.  What specific outcome are you hoping to achieve? 

After you blow the whistle, what are you hoping will happen? If the likely outcome is for someone to be fired, then you need to dig deeper: are you just trying to get rid of someone you dislike, or are they actually jeopardizing the company’s success? The key here is that the likely outcome of your actions should be loving, or at least positive—you are trying to make sure that the most possible good comes to the most possible people. Anything shy of that, and your heart is in the wrong place: selfish gain or revenge are not whistleblower-worthy goals.

Ultimately, your answers to the above two questions are very helpful, but they can’t provide the final answer. Sometimes there are much more complex factors; for example, if you have signed a non-disclosure agreement, blowing the whistle could lead to legal action against you. And if you are sitting on a bona fide scandal, you may qualify for official legal whistleblower protection, but you may not. For these matters, always consult a lawyer.

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