Sometimes engineers attempting to be both loyal employees and responsible professionals and citizens encounter difficulties. The engineer finds herself in a position of having to oppose her managers or her organization. Jim Otten finds the expression organizational  disobedience"  appropriate  as a generic term  to cover all types of actions taken by an employee that are contrary to the wishes of her employer. Given the similarities between this kind of action and civil disobedience, the term seems appropriate.23 We do not follow Ottens definition exactly, but we use his expression and define organizational disobedience as a protest of, or refusal to follow, an organizational policy or action.

It is helpful to keep the following two points about organizational disobedience in mind. First, the policy that a professional employee disobeys or protests may be either specific or general. It may be a specific directive of a superior or a general organizational policy, either a single act or a continuing series of actions.

Second, the employer may not intend to do anything morally wrong. For example, when an engineer objects to the production of a faulty type of steel pipe, he is not necessarily claiming that his firm intends to manufacture a shoddy product. Rather, he is objecting to a series of actions that would probably result in unfortunate consequences, however unintended.

There are at lest three distinct areas in which responsible engineers might be involved in organizational disobedience:

1.              Disobedience by contrary action, which is engaging in activities contrary to the interests of the company, as perceived by management.

2.              Disobedience by nonparticipation, which is re using to carry out an assignment because of moral or professional objections.

3. Disobedience by protest, which is actively and openly protesting a policy or action of an organization.

What guidelines should the responsible engineer use in deciding when to engage in organizational disobedience in these areas, and how should he or she carry out this disobedience? We consider the first two types of organizational disobedience in this section and the third type in the next.

Disobedience by Contrary Action

Engineers may sometimes find that their actions outside the workplace are objectionable to managers. Objections by managers are usually in one of two areas. First, man agers may believe  that  a particular  action or perhaps  the general  lifestyle of an employee  reflects  unfavorably  on  the  organization.  For  example,  an  engineer might be a member of a political group that is generally held in low esteem by the community. Second, managers may believe that some activities of employees are contrary to the interests of the organization in a more direct way. For example, an engineer may be a member of a local environmental group that is pressuring his or her company to install antipollution equipment that is not required by law or is lobbying to keep the company from purchasing some wetland area that it intends to drain and use for plant expansion. In an actual case, Mr. Novosel publicly opposed his employer in a public debate and referendum and was dismissed.24 How should an engineer handle such delicate situations?

Although we cannot investigate all of the issues fully here, a few observations are essential. Disobedience by contrary action is not a paradigm case of harm to the organization (compared, for example, with theft or fraud ), and its restriction by the organization is not a paradigm case of restriction of individual freedom (compared, for example, with a direction to do something the employee thinks is seriously immoral). Nevertheless, they are examples of harm to the individual and the organization. Let us consider some of the arguments that  might  be offered to confirm  this claim.

On the one hand, there is no doubt that an organization can be harmed in some sense by the actions of employees outside the workplace. A company that has a reputation for hiring people whose lifestyles are offensive to the local community may not be able to hire highly desirable people,  and it may lose business as well.  The harm that an organization may suffer is even more obvious  when  employees engage in political activities that are directly contrary to the interests of the organization. A manager can argue with  some persuasiveness  that the simplistic assertion that nothing the employee does after 5 oclock affects the organization  does not do justice to the realities of business and community lite. On these grounds, a manager might assert that the organization s right to the loyalty of its employees requires the employee not to harm the organization in these ways.

On the other hand, an employee’ s freedom suffers substantial curtailment if organizational restrictions force her to curtail activities to which she has a deep personal commitment. Nor can the manager persuasively argue that employees should simply resign if management finds their activities outside the workplace objectionable because the same activities might harm other organizations in the same way. Thus, consistently applying the argument that employees should never do anything that harms the organization results in the conclusion that employees should never engage in lifestyles or political activities that are controversial. This amounts to a substantial limitation of an employee’s freedom.

In surveying these arguments, we believe that a good case can be made that organizations should not punish employees for disobedience by contrary action. Punishing employees for disobedience by contrary action amounts to a considerable infringement on individual freedom. Moreover, employees may not be able to avoid this type of harm to organizations simply by changing jobs. Many organizations might be harmed by an engineer’s political views or efforts on behalf of the environment. Thus, allowing this type of harm to count as justification for organizational control permits organizations to exert considerable influence over an employee’s life outside the workplace.  In a society that values  individual  freedom  as much  as ours does, such a substantial abridgement of individual freedom is difficult to justify.

Despite these considerations, however, many managers will act strenuously when they believe they or their organizations are threatened by actions of employees out­ side the workplace. Therefore, two observations may be appropriate.

First, some actions by employees outside the workplace harm an organization more directly than others. An engineers campaign for tighter restrictions on her own companys environmental pollution will probably have a more direct effect on her company than an engineers private sexual life. Employees should be more careful in areas in which the harm to their organization is more direct.

Second, there can be a major difference in the degree to which curtailment of an employees activities outside the workplace encroaches on his freedom. Curtailment of activities closely associated  with ones personal identity  and with strong moral  or religious  beliefs is more  serious than limitation  of activities that are associated with more peripheral beliefs. Therefore, employees should allow themselves more freedom in areas that are closely related to their basic personal commitments than in areas more peripheral to their most important concerns.

Disobedience by Non participation

In one of the most famous legal cases that falls in this category, Dr. Grace Pierce, a physician, strongly objected to some impending  tests on humans of a drug for diarrhea. Dr. Pierce had not actually refused to participate in the conduct of the tests, but the firm assumed that she would refuse and transferred her to another area. She eventually resigned.25 Engineers are most likely to engage in disobedience by nonparticipation in projects that are related to the military and in projects that may adversely affect the environment. Engineer James, a pacifist, may discover that the underwater detection system that his company has contracted to build has military applications and thereupon request to be relieved of an assignment to the project. Engineer Betty may request not to be asked to design condominium that will be built in a wetland area.

Disobedience by nonparticipation can be based on professional ethics or personal ethics. Engineers who refuse to design a product that they believe is unsafe can base their objections on their professional codes, which require engineers to give preeminence to considerations of public safety, health, and welfare. Engineers who refuse to design a product that has military applications because of their personal objections to the use of violence must base their refusal on personal morality because the codes do not prohibit engineers from participating in military projects. The basis of objections to participating in projects that engineers believe are harmful to the environment is more controversial. Some of the engineering codes have statements about the environment and some do not; when present, the statements are usually very general and not always easy to interpret.

Several things should be kept in mind about disobedience by nonparticipation. First, it is possible (although perhaps unlikely) for an employee to abuse the appeal to conscience, using it as a way to avoid projects he finds boring or not challenging or as a way to avoid association with other employees with whom he has personal difficulties. An employee should be careful to avoid any behavior that would support this interpretation of his or her actions. Second, it is sometimes difficult for employers to honor a request to be removed from a work assignment. For example, there may be no alternative assignments, there may be no other engineer who is qualified to do the work, or the change may be disruptive to the organization. These problems are especially severe in small organizations.

Nevertheless, we believe an organization, when it can do so, should honor most requests for nonparticipation in a project when the requests are based on conscience or a belief that the project violates professional standards. Common morality holds that a violation of ones conscience is a serious moral matter. Employers should not force employees to make a choice between losing their job or violating personal or professional  standards. Sometimes employers may not have any alternative work assignments, but many organizations have found ways to respect employees views without undue economic sacrifice.



We have saved this third type of organizational protest for a separate section because it is the best known and most extensively discussed form of organizational disobedience. In some situations, engineers find the actions of the employer to be so objectionable that they believe mere nonparticipation in the objectionable activity is insufficient.  Rather, some form of protest,  or whistle blowing is required. We begin by making some general comments about whistleblowing and then consider two important theories of whistle blowing.

What  Is Whistleblowing?

The origin and exact meaning of the metaphor of whistleblowing are uncertain. According to Michael Davis, there are three possible sources of the metaphor: a train sounding a whistle to warn people to get off the track, a referee blowing a whistle to indicate a foul, or a police officer blowing a whistle to stop wrongdoing.26  One problem with all of these metaphors, as Davis points out, is that they depict whistleblowers  as outsiders, whereas a whistleblower is more like a team player who calls a foul play on his own team. This insider aspect is suggested by the American Heritage Dictionary 's definition of a whistleblower as one who reveals wrongdoing within an organization to the public or to those in positions of authority. This suggests two characteristics of whistleblowing: ( 1) One reveals information that the organization does not want revealed to the public or some authority and (2) one does this out of approved channels.

An important  distinction is between  internal and external whistleblowing.  In internal whistleblowing, the alarm about wrongdoing stays within the organization, although the whistle blower may bypass his immediate superiors, especially if they are  involved  in  the wrongdoing.  In external  whistleblowing,  the  whistle blower goes outside the organization, alerting a regulatory organization or the press. An other important  distinction  is between  open and  anonymous whistleblowing.  In open whistleblowing, the whistleblower reveals his identity, whereas in anonymous whistleblowing the whistleblower attempts to keep his identity secret. Whether internal or external, open or anonymous, however, a whistleblower is usually defined as a person who is an insider, one who is a part of the organization. For this reason, the question of loyalty always arises. A whistle blower s actions are acts of disloyalty to his or her organization.27 Therefore, whistleblowing needs a justification.  Lets look at the two major approaches to the justification of whistleblowing. One uses primarily utilitarian considerations and the other employs considerations more appropriate to the standpoint of respect  for persons.


Whistleblowing: A  Harm-Preventing Justification

Richard DeGeorge has provided a set of criteria that must be satisfied before whistleblowing can be morally justified.28 DeGeorge believes that whistleblowing is morally permissible if

1. the harm that "will be done by the product to the public is serious and considerable”;

2.  the employees report their concern to their superiors, and;

3. getting no satisfaction from their immediate superiors, they exhaust the channels available within the organization.

DeGeorge  believes  that whistleblowing  is morally  obligatory if

1. the employee has documented evidence that would convince a responsible, impartial observer that his view of the situation is correct and the company policy is wrongand

2.              the employee has "strong evidence that making the information public will in fact prevent the threatened serious harm."

Notice that the criteria involve a balancing of harms and benefits in a typical utilitarian fashion. There is potential harm to the public, and this is what initiates the considerations that  whistleblowing  might  be  justified . The  public  will  benefit if these harms are eliminated . There is also potential harm to the organization, and the prospective whistleblower must attempt to minimize this harm by first trying to use available channels within the organization . There is also potential harm to the whistleblower, and the risk of harm  must only be undertaken when there is some assurance t hat others would be convinced of the wrong and the harm might be prevented. There is no reason, DeGeorge seems to believe, to risk ones career if there is little chance the whistleblowing will have the desired effect. Taken as general tests for justified or required whistleblowing, however, DeGeorge’s      criteria are subject to criticisms.29

1.               The first criterion seems too strong. DeGeorge seems to assume that the employee must know that harm will result and that the harm must be great. Sometime an employee is not in a position to gather evidence that is totally convincing. Perhaps just believing on the basis of the best evidence available that harm will result is sufficient.

2. It should not always be necessary for employees to report their criticisms to their superiors. Often, ones immediate superiors are the cause of the problem and cannot be trusted to give unbiased evaluation of the situation.

3.              It should not always be necessary to exhaust the organizational chain of command. Sometimes there is not time to do this before a disaster will occur. Also, some­ times employees have no effective way to make their protests known to higher management except by going public.

4.              It is not always possible to get documented evidence of a problem. 0en, organizations deprive employees of access to the vital information needed to make a conclusive argument for their position. They deprive protesting employees of access to computers and other sources of information necessary to make their case.

5.               The obligation to make the protest may not always mean there will be strong evidence that a protest will prevent the harm. Just giving those exposed to a harm the chance to give free and informed consent to the potential harm is often a sufficient justification of the protest.

6.               Some have argued that if the whistleblower does not have evidence that would convince a reasonable, impartial observer that her view of the situation is correct (criterion 4), her whistle blowing could not prevent harm and would not even be morally permissible, much less obligatory. Thus, if criterion 4 is not fulfilled, whis­ tleblowing might not even be permissible.30


Whistleblowing: A Complicity-Avoiding View

Michael Davis has proposed a very different theory of the justification of whistleblowing We might understand whistleblowing better if we understand the whistleblowers obligation to derive from the need to avoid complicity in wrongdoing rather than from the ability to prevent harm.31 Davis formulates his complicity theory in the following way.

You are morally required to reveal what you know to the public (or to a suitable agent or representative of it) when

( C1) what you will reveal derives from your work for an organization; (C2) you are a voluntary member of that organization;

(C3) you believe that the organization, though legitimate, is engaged in a serious moral wrong;

(C4) you believe that your work for that organization will contribute (more or less directly) to the wrong if ( but not only if) you do not publicly reveal what you know;

( C5) you are justified  in beliefs C3 and C4; and (C6) beliefs C3 and C4 are true.32

According to complicity theory, the moral motivation for blowing the whistle is to avoid participating in an immoral action, not to prevent a harm to the public. Thus, it is more in agreement with the basic ideas of the respect for persons tradition. One blows the whistle to avoid violating moral precepts, not to prevent harm to the public.

Davis' approach to the moral justification of whistleblowing has several distinct advantages. First, since preventing harm to the public is not a motivation for whistle blowing, one does not have to know that harm would result if he does not blow the whistle. Second, since preventing harm to the organization is not a motivation for blowing the whistle, one does not have to first work through organizational channels. Third, since preventing harm to oneself is not a motivation for whistleblowing, one does not have to be sure that blowing the whistle will prevent the harm before one risks ones career. Nevertheless, there are problems with Davistheory as well. 33

First, the requirement that what one reveals must derive from ones work in the organization (C1) and must contribute to the wrongdoing (C4) seems much too restrictive. Suppose engineer Joe is asked to review a design for a structure submitted to a customer by another member of the organization in which he is employed. Joe finds the design highly defective and, in fact, that it would be a serious threat to public safety if the structure were to be built. According to Davis, Joe would not have any obligation  to blow  the whistle  because  the  design  had  nothing  to do with Joes work with the organization. Yet this seems implausible. Joe may well have an obligation to blow the whistle if the design poses a serious threat because of its potential for harm  to the public regardless of his own involvement  in the design.

Second, Davis also requires that a person be a voluntary member of an organization. But suppose Michael, an Army draftee, discovers a situation that poses a serious threat to his fellow soldiers. Michael has a moral obligation to blow the whistle, and the fact that he was drafted seems to have little relevance.

Third, Davis believes that one is only justified in blowing  the whistle if in fact one believes that serious wrongdoing  by the organization  has occurred. But it seems more reasonable to say that one is justified  in blowing the whistle if one has good reason to believe that wrongdoing will occur. Even if one turned out to be mistaken, one would still be justified in blowing the whistle, especially from the standpoint of the ethics of respect for persons. Otherwise, ones moral integrity would be compromised because one would be involved in activities that at least one believes to be wrong. To be doing something one believes to be wrong is still a serious compromise of ones moral integrity, even if by some more objective standard one is not actually involved in wrongdoing.

Finally, Davis does not take sufficient account of what many people would con sider  to  be  a  clear-and  perhaps  the  most  important-justification   of whistle blowing, namely  that it is undertaken  to prevent  harm  to the organization or ( more often) to the public. Although  avoiding complicity in wrongdoing is a legitimate and important justification  for blowing the whistle, at the very least, it need not be the only one.

Despite the criticisms of both theories, there does seem to be truth in both. For Davis, whistleblowing must be justified because the whistleblower violates the obligation of loyalty. He justifies blowing the whistle to keep himself from complicity in wrongdoing. For DeGeorge, whistleblowing must be justified because of the harm it can produce to the organization and to the whistleblower. These harms can some­ times be outweighed by the harm to the public that would otherwise occur. All of these considerations seem valid. From a practical standpoint, they are all important to consider when thinking about blowing the whistle.



Some Practical Advice on Whistleblowing

We conclude this section with some practical considerations on protesting organizational wrongdoing.

First, take advantage of any formal or informal processes your organization may have for making a protest. Your organization may have an "ethics hotline or an ombudsman. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has a formal process for registering what it calls Differing Professional  Opinions."34 Many managers have an open door" policy, and there may be other informal procedures for expressing to a superior a different assessment of a situation.

Second, determine whether it is better to keep your protest as confidential as possible or to involve others in the process. Sometimes the most effective way to work within an organization is to work confidentially and in a nonconfrontational way with superiors and colleagues. At other times, it is important  to  involve  your peers in  the process so that a manager cannot justify disregarding your protest by assuming  that  it is the result  of one disgruntled  employee.

Third, focus on issues, not personalities. People get defensive  and  hostile when they are personally attacked, whether these people are your superiors or your peers. Therefore, it is usually a better tactic to describe the issues in impersonal terms insofar as this is possible.

Fourth, keep written records of the process. This is important if court proceedings are eventually involved. It also serves to keep the record straight" about what was said and when it was said.

Fifth, present positive suggestions in association with your objection. Your protest should have the form I have a problem that I want to bring to your attention, but I also think I have a way to solve it. This approach keeps your protest from being wholly negative and suggests a positive solution to the problem you have identified. Positive suggestions can be helpful to managers, who must deal with the prob lem in a practical way.