Professor of Business Law Craig Barkacs Addresses Whistleblower Dilemma in Class Scenario

Monday, November 9, 2020

Directory photo of USD Professor of Business Law Craig Barkacs

You encounter someone doing something wrong. Do you speak up? Do you report it?

As a professor at the University of San Diego School of Business, the “whistleblower dilemma” is taken up in the Business Ethics classes I teach. Pedagogic research supports analyzing issues in a context class members can relate to.

In keeping with this prescribed approach of making the context student-relevant, how the particular issue of “whistleblowing” is rolled out in my business ethics class tends to tease out contradictions and inconsistencies that are the hallmark of cognitive dissonance.

“Class,” I begin, “Who here thinks cheating in school is okay?” Yes, it is a softball question. After all, who is going to raise their hand in an ethics class and make the case for a clear violation of academic integrity?

“Next question,” I continue, “So since we all agree that cheating is wrong, you’re going to tell me when someone cheats?”

Silence.

“No? Well, how about if I sweeten the pot? Since we all agree that cheating is wrong, if you come forward and report such a violation of academic integrity I will see that you receive maximum exposure and be given full credit in public for conscientiously trying to right this wrong.”

Laughter.

“Why are you laughing? You mean you don’t want people to know that you stepped forward to expose cheating? Why not? We have some unflattering names for people who report wrongdoing, don’t we? Can you think of a few?”

Now the class chimes in with the likes of, “tattletale, rat, Judas, traitor, squealer, stool pigeon, stoolie, canary, nark, fink…etc.”

Yes, it is hard to be a whistleblower. I will then ask them to consider what they might do under the following circumstances:

Scenario 1: Imagine you are doing very poorly in the class, and I state as follows.

“This class is not just about theory, but also about action. Do you have the courage of your convictions? Assume I know cheating has taken place, but I need the support of a witness to make the charge stick. If any of you have the courage to come forward and confirm the cheating by a fellow student you too know has cheated, I will give you an “A” in the class – you will have earned it with your actions.”

Scenario 2: Imagine you are doing very well in the class, and I state as follows.

“This class is not just about theory, but also about action. Assume I know cheating has taken place, and I also know that you know (e.g., I overheard you saying as much) and can be a much-needed corroborating witness. I need the support of a witness to make the charge stick. If you fail to come forward and confirm the cheating by a fellow student you too know has cheated, I will give you an “F” in the class – you will have earned it with your cowardice.”

As one would imagine, both the carrot (scenario #1) and the stick (scenario #2) tend to encourage people to speak up when their own well-being is at stake. Do they still, however, want confidentiality? Absolutely.

Your grade in the class is not a consideration. You are deeply troubled, however, by the cheating of others. You want to report it because your spindle cells are firing and you believe it’s the right thing to do. The teacher promises confidentiality, but you will almost certainly be found out anyway as the one who spoke up. You will be ostracized.

The discussion becomes much more intricate and involved as various scenarios and complexities are introduced, but even at this early juncture the conceptual foundation of the whistleblower dilemma is firmly established.

 

Professor Barkacs' workplace dilemma was featured in an article by Up Journey titled "25+ Moral Dilemma Examples, Questions, and Scenarios."

Contact:

Renata Ramirez
renataramirez@sandiego.edu
(619) 260-4658