• whistleblowing;
  • ethics;
  • nursing;
  • duty;
  • harm

Nurses and whistleblowing: the ethical issues

Whistleblowing – the public exposure of organizational wrongdoing – presents practical and ethical dilemma for nurses, and needs to be seen as part of a spectrum of increasingly confrontative actions against miscreant organizations by their employees. The ethics of whistleblowing can only be understood in relation to its moral purpose, whether that is to achieve a good outcome (a consequentialist view) or fulfil a duty (a deontological view). The consequentialist perspective is unable on its own to resolve problems arising from the balance of good and harm resulting from the act of whistleblowing (where considerable harm might be caused) or of responsibility for that harm. A deontological approach provides an analysis of these problems but raises its own problem of conflicting duties for nurses. However, a strong argument can be made for the precedence of the nurse’s duty to the patient over her duty to the employer. Although both duties are based on an implicit or an explicit promise, the promise to a person (the patient) must take precedence over the promise to an organization. It can even be argued that duty to the employer may in fact justify whistleblowing by nurses in some circumstances. However, the consequences of whistleblowing are forced upon nurses in a different way by the fact that the danger of reprisals acts as a deterrent to whistleblowers, however justified their actions may be. A more robust approach to the protection of whistleblowers is needed on the part of the government and the National Health Service (NHS) to remedy this situation.