Business Research

The Gray Area: Degrees of Wrongdoing on Whistleblowing

Pretend you're sitting in a class. There's an exam laying on the desk in front of you. You studied for hours, and as you lean over to write an answer, you see the student next to you cheating. What do you do? Would you tell on them? What if he or she your best friend or significant other? Does your relationship with the person who is cheating change your willingness to blow the whistle? Those are the questions Baylor Business Fellows and Accounting senior Amy Miller asked for her more than 100-page honors thesis, "Would You Blow-the-Whistle on a Friend? Analysis of the Significance of Relationships on Whistleblower Intentions," which she started work on nearly two years ago.

"My focus was on relationships and how they affect whether you whistleblow or not," Miller said. "I always thought whistleblowers were doing the right thing and should be praised, but often they're shunned and treated badly by fellow workers. If people know it's going to happen, why do they do it?"

There are so many factors in relationships, Miller had difficulty separating the different kinds, so she tested different relationships based on closeness. She looked at four kinds of relationships: strangers, acquaintances, friends and close friends/family.

"I did a pilot test on freshmen to test results on how people would react if they didn't know anything about whistleblowing and background information. Freshmen tended to put higher numbers or very low—major extremes. A lot of it had to do with experience. I've done multiple internships, and I've been in similar scenarios, so if I took the test, I would take those real life experiences into account."

"One of the oddest results was that students who had taken ethics were less likely to blow the whistle," Miller said. "You would think it would be the other way around."

Miller surveyed nearly 400 Baylor Business students, which consisted of primarily Accounting upper classmen and a few graduate students.

"I also looked at severities of wrongdoing in the test," Miller said. "From stealing a pen at the office to breaking a law, the severity of the wrongdoing couldn't be ignored as a factor."

The main conclusion is the closer the relationship; the less likely people are to blow the whistle.

"I thought the most interesting result was that the more severe the wrongdoing is, the less your relationship to the wrong doer affects it," Miller said."If it's really wrong, people are going to report it regardless of the relationship, with the exception of family."

KPMG Peat Marwick - Thomas L. Holton Chair of Accountancy and Associate Accounting Professor Kathy Hurtt, who served as Miller's thesis adviser, is impressed with the research.

"Her project was amazing," Hurtt said. "I've never seen anyone put so much work into their research, especially as an undergraduate student. You have to be self-motivated."

Hurtt and Miller agree the results have opened up opportunities for future research on the subject of whistleblowing and its ethics.

"We want to submit her research to professionals," Hurtt said. "In addition, one thing we both want to research more is the result that younger students were more defined in what is right or wrong, and generally more willing to blow the whistle. Students who had taken an ethics class were less likely to whistleblow. That would be a very interesting result to follow up on."

Amy Miller
Baylor University