"Hey, Tattle-tale!"
(How Grade School Ethics
Got It All Wrong)

Joel Saltzman

When I was in grade school, I remember kids who'd raise their hand to report earth-shattering events like, "Teacher, Johnny is picking his nose."

We had a name for these kids - "tattle-tale."

"What's it your business?" Johnny would shoot back. And rightly so.

In contrast, imagine that Janice seeks out her teacher to report, "Teacher, Johnny is lighting up crumbled papers and it looks like he's trying to set the library on fire."

In the first case (nose picking) Janice is a "tattle-tale" - because all she wants is to get Johnny in trouble. In the second case (fire starting) Janice may still be "telling" on Johnny, but a greater good is clearly being served: protecting the school, and everyone in it, from serious harm. That's what raises Janice's profile from "tattle-tale" to "whistleblower."

What's a whistleblower?

According to one dictionary, it's someone who "exposes wrongdoing within an organization in the hope of stopping it." Unfortunately, that's too simple a definition. So allow me to supplement that definition with three vital requirements.

1. The wrongdoing has got to be serious.
For example, when Janice grows up she'd be wrong to tell her boss, "I want you to know that Johnny, our truck driver, got here five minutes late this morning!" On the other hand, reporting "Johnny is drunk" would be a very good idea - especially before he gets into his truck.

What's "serious wrongdoing?"

Actions or activities that can have serious consequences
for the health, safety and well-being of your organization,
its customers, or the public at large. This can include
(but is not limited to):

Accounting irregularities (cooking the books, illegal tax
shelters, Enronesque smoke and mirrors, etc.)

Breaking the law (having the company or its agents avoid
government regulations - to make life easier, increase
profits, or both)

Consumer fraud
(rigging the price of a consumer product
- whether it's milk, eggs, gasoline or electricity)

Corruption (taking or soliciting bribes)

(hiding the ball; marketing a product that seems to
be safe when you have proof that it isn't - and rather than
disclosing that proof, keeping it locked up and secret).

Economic waste (charging the government $300 for an
ordinary hammer, or failing to get competitive bids, or just
not "shopping around" or "calling somewhere else" when
you know full well that significant money could be saved)

Environmental wrongdoing
(polluting the workplace,
neighborhood, or greater environment)

Fraud (billing for work that was never done; submitting phony
or doctored-up expense reports)

Gross misconduct (sexual misconduct; drug or alcohol abuse)

Gross inefficiency
(significant time, money or resources that are
needlessly being wasted)

Hazardous conditions
(permitting or promoting an unsafe
workplace - conditions that are hazardous to the health, safety
or well-being of employees, customers or the general public)

And so on.

Remember: This list is not intended to include every-single-activity
that warrants your concern. Rather, it's intended as a general guide,
a way-to-look-at-things when asking yourself, "Does this rise to the
level of something I should speak up about?"


2. Your motivation cannot simply be to "get him in trouble." To be a bona fide whistleblower, you'll need to act in good faith - to expose serious wrongdoing "in the hope of stopping it," not just in the hope of getting someone in trouble.

3. Follow the "chain of command." Bring your concerns to your boss or your supervisor. Alternatively, your company may have a Fraud Hotline, allowing you to "go on record" anonymously. Regardless, you'll need to exhaust all available procedures for reporting or rectifying serious wrongdoing before you call up the New York Times.


To earn 10 bonus points, voice your concerns SOONER, not later - to mitigate damages to employees, customers, stockholders or the public.

Think of it this way: You're riding in the passenger seat of a car when you notice that the driver has turned the wrong way down a one way street. Do you keep it to yourself, thinking, "He must know what he's doing." or "Gee, I really don't want to embarrass him?" Or do you take responsibility for the dangerous situation Jack has created and "blow the whistle" as loud as you can: "Jack, it's a one-way street, you're going the wrong way!"

Now let me pose a follow-up question: When do you "blow the whistle" on Jack's dangerous driving. Do you take a wait-and-see attitude (I'll let him drive a block or two and see what happens)? Of course not, because the longer you wait, the greater the odds of everyone in that car - and everyone in the path of that car -suffering serious consequences. So not only do you take action, you take that action quickly and decisively - the second you realize what's going on. Because the longer you wait, the bigger that problem is going to be for all parties concerned.


There's a world of difference between a "tattle-tale" and a "whistleblower." A "tattle-tale" gets someone in trouble for what could be a small, minor problem; a "whistleblower" has a far nobler calling: trying to stop serious wrongdoing - behavior that can have serious consequences for the health, safety or well-being of an organization, its customers, or the public at large. Meanwhile, the sooner someone shouts, "We're headed the wrong way!," the better for all of us.

© 2006 Joel Saltzman

Joel Saltzman is a speaker, facilitator and consultant who teaches people in business to
Shake That Brain! and discover solutions for maximum profit.
His latest book is "Shake That Brain!" (Wiley, 2006).
He can be reached Toll Free at 877-Shake It! (877-742-5348).