When do whistleblowers choose internal or external paths?

Organisational citizenship behaviour

As seen in Figures 4.1 and 4.2, the majority of officials blow the whistle internally in the first instance; and, for the majority, the matter also remains internal throughout. Further questions arise from this pattern: what does it indicate about the character of whistleblowing? Do people prefer to blow the whistle internally because that is simply their instinctive reaction? Or is there evidence that they are blowing the whistle internally because of a sense of duty and loyalty to the organisation? Is the decision to go outside the organisation associated positively with any evidence of an increased tendency to disloyalty? What are the implications for management?

The analysis of who reported wrongdoing provided in Chapter 3 already provides a broad backdrop to these questions. On the whole, the employee survey provided little evidence consistent with a stereotype of whistleblowers as generally disgruntled or embittered employees. This was established by comparing the levels of OCB shown by respondents, between non-role reporters (whistleblowers), role reporters and those respondents who observed wrongdoing but who did not report it (non-reporters). Whistleblowers showed higher levels of ‘interpersonal helping’ and ‘individual initiative’ (sub-scales of OCB) behaviour than non-reporters, but did not differ from non-reporters on either the ‘personal industry’ or ‘loyal boosterism’ sub-scales used to measure levels of OCB.

OCB is a constellation of discretionary extra-role behaviours enacted by individual employees that benefit the organisation and its members (Graham 1989; Organ 1988:4; Penner et al. 2005). While many whistleblowers have their own motivations for reporting wrongdoing, the fact that they score either higher or the same as non-reporters on these behavioural scales, combined with the objectively beneficial effects of a good deal of this reporting, justifies the characterisation of whistleblowing as pro-social behaviour (Dozier and Miceli 1985; Miceli et al. 2001; Miceli and Near 2006; Chapter 1, this volume).

Whistleblowers’ choices about whether to report internally or externally provide a further departure point for analysing the extent to which whistleblowing is best understood as pro-social, in an organisational context. This is because, while much internal whistleblowing might easily be imagined to be beneficial to the organisation, external whistleblowing immediately raises a range of broader challenges. Even though pro-social behaviour is by definition ‘generally beneficial’ to society, it can also at times be organisationally dysfunctional (Brief and Motowidlo 1986; Moorman and Blakely 1995). Nowhere is this better demonstrated than by the issue of external whistleblowing, which is generally recognised as good for society (at least when vindicated), but which can involve intense conflict between an organisation and its members and throw substantial parts of its management into turmoil, even if the organisation ends up better off.

By further examining levels of OCB among those who report internally versus those who report externally, we can therefore test whether the characterisation of whistleblowing as pro-social still holds at an organisational level, as well as a broader social level. For obvious reasons, pro-social behaviour and OCB have long been seen as related concepts (Brief and Motowidlo 1986; Podsakoff et al. 2000; Puffer 1987, cited in Williams and Anderson 1991). The match is, however, not necessarily perfect, because OCB is intended to describe behaviours that are inherently organisationally functional. In the present study, if whistleblowing is shown to also be organisationally functional through OCB, its character as pro-social will only be strengthened.

More specifically, two of the four OCB sub-scales used in the employee survey[2] provide measures of attitudes that are directly relevant to decisions to blow the whistle externally or internally. ‘Individual initiative’ provides a measure of willingness to communicate and attempt to influence others in the workplace, including behaviour that could be seen as ‘rocking the boat’ (Graham 1989:9; cf. Podsakoff et al. 2000). For example, one item asks respondents to indicate their agreement with the statement: ‘For issues that may have serious consequences, I express opinions honestly, even when others disagree.’ As noted above, whistleblowers generally showed higher levels of ‘individual initiative’ attitudes than non-reporters. ‘Loyal boosterism’ is also directly relevant, but for the reverse reason—since it is usually presumed to indicate a preference for keeping issues internal. These items are used to measure respondents’ attitudes to promoting, protecting and defending the organisation under adverse conditions (Podsakoff et al. 2000)—for example: ‘I defend the organisation when other employees criticise it.’ As noted above, whistleblowers generally showed the same levels of ‘loyal boosterism’ as non-reporters. The question arises, however, whether this holds true for external whistleblowers compared with internal ones, given that going outside the management chain or outside the organisation is often viewed as disloyal—especially by anyone likely to be unexpectedly exposed or embarrassed as a result. Disloyalty could be associated with normal loyalty that has been compromised by selfish motives (Weinstein 1979) or simply having been sacrificed for the higher ethical principle of reporting the wrongdoing (Jubb 1999). In either case, many organisational responses reflect assessments about the degree of loyalty or disloyalty that should attach to someone who makes an external report.

In theory, the pro-sociality of whistleblowing and levels of organisational citizenship should be stronger for those who report internally compared with those who do so externally (Dozier and Miceli 1985). Internal whistleblowing is more likely to facilitate early detection of wrongdoing and create an opportunity for timely investigation and corrective action (Berry 2004). Even though the motivation (to help put a stop to wrongdoing) and process (notifying people who have the power to do something about it) might be the same, it is, however, reasonably apparent to the whistleblower that the repercussions for the organisation are likely to be more extreme if outside organisations are involved. Further, some types of external whistleblowing are more likely to be antisocial than pro-social, such as reporting to the media to gain an individual advantage without first raising concerns internally (Miceli et al. 2001; Miceli and Near 2006).

The reasoning outlined above suggests four hypotheses.[3]

H1. OCB should be more strongly positively related to a preference for initial internal whistleblowing, and less strongly related to a preference for initial external whistleblowing.

H2. OCB should be more strongly positively related to internal reporting as an initial real reporting path, and less strongly related to external reporting as initial real reporting path.

H3. OCB will also be more strongly positively related to real reporting that remains internal only, and less strongly related to any real reporting that includes external reporting (for example, including reports that were initially internal, but subsequently became external).

H4. As for Hypothesis 3, but comparing only ‘non-role’ reporters (that is, potential whistleblowers as explained in Chapter 2), since role reporters might be presumed to be more likely to remain internal and also to have higher levels of OCB.

Hypothesis 1: OCB more strongly positively related to preference for initial internal whistleblowing than preference for initial external whistleblowing

This hypothesis involved examining the stated preferences of respondents to scale items about internal and external reporting in the employee survey, irrespective of whether they reported. Although this chapter is otherwise concerned with officials’ real reporting behaviour, this hypothesis allows us to test the attitudes of all 7663 respondents to the survey. As outlined in Chapter 3, the employee survey (Q15) measured ‘whistleblowing propensity’ as well as real behaviour, including two items that asked respondents to indicate whether they would be ‘most likely’ to report wrongdoing internally to a supervisor, manager or similar ‘in the first instance’, or to make their first report externally, to a watchdog body, the media or similar ‘in the first instance’ (Q15f and 15g).[4] These items were adapted from those used by Zipparo (1999b).

The hypothesis was tested using a method described by Steiger (1980), which allows a comparison to be made of the correlations of the internal and external reporting variables with the four dimensions of OCB, including the ‘individual initiative’ and ‘loyal boosterism’ sub-scales noted as important above.

The hypothesis was supported by the analysis. It was found that all OCB dimensions were significantly more highly correlated with the expressed preference for internal rather than for external reporting. All dimensions were significantly positively related to internal reporting. They were also negatively related to external reporting, with ‘interpersonal helping’ and ‘loyal boosterism’ significant in this equation. Significance tests were conducted for all hypotheses and are available for all those that were supported, including this one.[5]

Table 4.3 sets out the correlations and whether they are positive or negative. Note that the ‘trust’ variable included in Tables 4.3 and 4.4 will be discussed in the next section.

This analysis is especially significant because it suggests that the tendency for public employees to report wrongdoing internally to management might not simply be a product of organisational constraints. For example, while that strong tendency might reflect respondents’ lack of knowledge about or confidence in other reporting avenues, it is also consistent with an active preference to report internally—that is, to be able to disclose wrongdoing and have it addressed in ways that remain loyal and rock the boat the least.

This result is therefore also consistent with the fact that, while it could be necessary and desirable in some cases, external reporting is more likely to be damaging to an organisation and more difficult to manage for whistleblowers and organisations alike (Berry 2004). These difficulties flow from the simple fact that the repercussions for the organisation are likely to be more extreme if outside organisations are involved, before the organisation has an opportunity to respond (Dozier and Miceli 1985). It stands to reason that many employees would be broadly aware of this and would see internal reporting as more viable specifically because it could help to avoid negative publicity and allow problems to be dealt with internally. It might also seem that the welfare of the whistleblower could be managed better, as discussed in later chapters.

In fact, as many legislative and procedural arrangements make clear, internal reporting is not always the best way for wrongdoing to be addressed. In some circumstances, it would be better for the whistle to be blown first to an external regulatory agency. What this analysis shows, however, is that it is unwise to assume that other reporting avenues—even if their use should be promoted—will ever substitute entirely for internal reporting processes, as these are highly likely to remain the first port of call for large numbers of staff.

Hypothesis 2: OCB more strongly positively related to internal reporting as real initial path than external reporting as real initial path

This hypothesis was tested by using a one-way ANOVA to examine the relationship between the OCB dimensions and the behaviour of all employee survey respondents who said they had reported wrongdoing. This analysis includes all types of real reporting—that is, it is not confined to whistleblowing.

As outlined earlier in the chapter, respondents were asked about their real reporting path, by indicating in what order they reported to different types of people internal and external to the organisation (Table 4.1). The main paths available were: 1) reporting internally initially and remaining internal (or reporting only once, which was an internal report); 2) reporting internally initially and then reporting externally; or 3) reporting externally initially and remaining external (or reporting only once, which was externally). Those who indicated that their first report was internal were divided into one group (Q28a–h, j) and compared with those who indicated that their first report was external (Q28i, k–n). Whether or not they made any subsequent reports, either internally or externally, was irrelevant to this analysis. For the reasons indicated earlier, there was an imbalance in the relative sizes of these groups of respondents. The number who reported internally initially was very large (n = 1935, 90 per cent of all reporters), while the number who reported externally initially was very small (n = 80, 3.7 per cent of all reporters). Since these variables are so highly skewed, interpretations of the findings can only be undertaken with caution.

Table 4.3 Mean, standard deviations, reliability estimates, correlations (numeric variables) and F-values (categorical variables) for study variables

* significant at the 0.05 level

** significant at the 0.01 level

*** significant at the 0.001 level

Notes: Notes: The reliability estimates (coefficient alphas) are reported in the diagonal. For comparisons of scale variables, correlations were used and for categorical variables with scale variables, ANOVAs were used. Pearson correlations were two-tailed.

Source: Employee survey: Q1, Q2, Q15, Q26, Q28 (n = 7663).


M (SD)











1. Trust

3.41 (0.83)











2. Interpersonal helping

3.96 (0.47)











3. Individual initiative

3.76 (0.54)










4. Personal industry

3.84 (0.55)









5. Loyal boosterism

3.55 (0.66)








6. Internal preference scale

4.26 (0.71)







7. External preference scale

1.82 (0.87)






8. Real whistleblowing behaviour (yes/no)






9. Internal v. external real initial reporting path





10. Internal only v. some external




In fact, the hypothesis was not supported. There were no significant differences between the mean scores on any of the OCB sub-scales for those whistleblowers who initially chose an internal reporting path and those who initially chose an external reporting path. Table 4.4 sets out the relevant mean. The importance of this finding is discussed below.

Table 4.4 Comparison of OCB and trust in management (mean) by different reporting paths (all reporters)



Interpersonal helping

Individual initiative

Personal industry

Loyal boosterism


Internal whistleblowing as initial reporting path






External whistleblowing as initial reporting path






Internal reporting only






Some external reporting






Source: Employee survey: Q28 (n = 2015).

Hypothesis 3: OCB will be more strongly related to real reporting that remains internal only and less strongly related to reporting that includes external reporting

This hypothesis compared those respondents in the employee survey who only ever reported internally (n = 1728, 81 per cent of all reporters) with those who reported externally at any point, including those who reported internally initially but subsequently reported externally (n = 324, 15 per cent of all reporters). Note that these percentages total less than 100 per cent due to missing data. Again, this analysis includes all types of real reporting and is not confined to whistleblowing. The hypothesis was tested using a one-way ANOVA. These mean figures are also shown in Table 4.4.

Significant differences appeared on three of the OCB sub-scales, going in different directions. Contrary to the hypothesis, those who reported externally at any point had higher scores than internal reporters for ‘individual initiative’ and, as expected, lower scores for ‘loyal boosterism’. Accordingly, compared with those who only ever reported internally, those who reported externally at any point were more similar to the stereotype of being more prepared to rock the boat and having less loyalty, but not at the expense of their overall similarity in organisational citizenship. In particular, ‘personal industry’ for both groups remained the same and, contrary to what was hypothesised, those who reported externally at any point rated higher than the internal group for ‘interpersonal helping’ (see Endnote 5 for the significance tests).

Hypothesis 4: For ‘non-role’ reporters, OCB might be more strongly related to real reporting that remains internal only and less strongly related to reporting that includes external reporting

This hypothesis was based on the previous one, but was restricted to comparison of the reporting behaviour of non-role reporters. In other words, the analysis was confined to potential whistleblowers who had reported wrongdoing outside their organisational role, but still included those who reported personnel or workplace grievances and was thus not confined to public interest whistleblowers. A total of 1157 non-role reporters only reported internally, compared with 256 non-role reporters who reported externally at some point.

Significantly, once again, a result contrary to the hypothesis was found. Despite narrowing the group towards the definition of whistleblowing used elsewhere in this book, the results did not change from Hypothesis 3. External reporters similarly scored higher for ‘individual initiative’ (mean includes external = 3.93; mean internal only = 3.82) and ‘interpersonal helping’ (mean includes external = 4.08; mean internal only = 4) and lower for ‘loyal boosterism’ (mean includes external = 3.33; mean internal only = 3.53), with no difference for ‘personal industry’ (mean = 3.85). See Endnote 5 for significance tests.

Taken together, these results give new insights into how whistleblowing should be viewed by organisations, based on the reporting paths preferred and chosen by employee survey respondents. The fact that higher levels of OCB correlated strongly with those who expressed a preference for reporting internally rather than externally in the first instance suggests that employees could recognise the desirability of internal reporting—for their own sake and that of their organisation. Consistent with some of the broad findings in Chapters 2 and 3, this result indicates that whistleblowing is not only accurately characterised as pro-social, it is seen as pro-social, at least if internal in the first instance.

While the preference for internal whistleblowing confirms its underlying pro-sociality, a different picture emerges in terms of the relationship between measures of OCB and real reporting behaviour. Here, the analyses were not confined to public interest whistleblowing, but the fact that all types of wrongdoing were included (including personnel and workplace grievances) makes the results even more significant. The internal and external initial reporting path groups demonstrated no differences in their OCB scores. This indicates that, contrary to the preference, even those who report externally in the first instance retain (on average) their positive view of their role and relationship with their organisation. The result must, however, be treated with caution given the small size of the latter group.

In response to Hypothesis 3, the comparison of two more balanced groups—those who only ever reported internally and those who reported externally at any point—suggests the picture is more complex. Some of the outcomes stand to reason. Employees who blew the whistle externally at some point were more likely to rate highly for ‘individual initiative’ (including ‘rocking the boat’). They also tended to rate lower for ‘loyal boosterism’ (loyalty to and promoting the organisation), but here, as in Chapter 3, the direction of cause and effect is not clear. Given the strength of the preference for internal reporting shown above, it appears more likely that this drop in loyalty is owed to the respondents’ perception of the response once the report is made internally rather than that those who report externally are necessarily always predisposed to be less loyal. This is consistent with the evidence that very few employees blow the whistle externally without first having blown it inside the organisation. Accordingly, the external reporters’ higher scores for ‘initiative’ and lower scores for ‘loyalty’ could simply reflect their experience of having felt compelled to pursue the matter externally, against what would have been their normal preference, rather than the other way around.

Most importantly, the fact that external reporters also rated higher for ‘interpersonal helping’ and equivalently for ‘personal industry’ means that, overall, their characterisation as organisational citizens holds, as does the characterisation of reporting—even when external—as pro-social. In Hypothesis 4, these results also held when the analysis was narrowed from all reporters to simply non-role reporters. Even with personnel and workplace grievances still included, therefore, we have results consistent with those in Chapter 3. There is little evidence that those who report wrongdoing externally are any more likely to be disgruntled or organisationally unhappy employees than those who report internally, except perhaps as a result of what happens when they first make an internal report. Just as the nature of the perceived wrongdoing and organisational context appear to have more to do with who blows the whistle than individual attitudes, it appears to be factors other than the individual that explain how and to whom employees choose to make any report.

[2] Employee survey: Q2, based on Graham (1989) and Moorman and Blakely (1995). Respondents used a five-point Likert scale ranging from 1 (‘strongly disagree’) to 5 (‘strongly agree’), in which a higher score indicated higher OCB. Although Moorman and Blakely (1995) used a seven-point scale, a five-point scale was used here to maintain consistency across the survey. Moorman and Blakely (1995) obtained the following alpha reliabilities: 0.61 (‘personal industry’), 0.74 (‘interpersonal helping’), 0.76 (‘individual initiative’) and 0.86 (‘loyal boosterism’).

[3] Demographic variables in the analyses: it was necessary to perform analyses to determine whether any of the demographic variables impacted significantly on the variables of interest. Those demographic variables that were associated significantly with any of the OCB dimensions—trust, the whistleblowing-propensity factors or internal reporting or external reporting variables (as tested by correlations and ANOVA)—were held constant in the analyses. To be conservative, significance was tested at an alpha level of 0.10. It was important to ensure that any effects found were the result of the hypothesised relationship being tested, rather than other confounding factors. The highest level of education, gender, age, tenure in the public sector, tenure in the organisation, role within the organisation, annual salary range, employment status, union membership, audit/fraud risk management/corruption prevention/investigation as part of job duties, size of immediate work section and work location were found to be associated with all or some of the variables of interest at an alpha level of 0.10, and these were therefore held constant as required in the various analyses, dependent on which variables were entered in the model.

Statistical techniques: all surveys were used as there were no out-of-range responses or significant amounts of missing data. The small level of missing data did not adversely affect the analyses as it was accounted for by calculating the scales with a requirement of at least an 80 per cent response rate for each. The hypotheses were tested using the following statistical techniques: correlations and comparison of correlations, ANOVA at an alpha level of 0.05.

[4] Respondents used a five-point Likert scale ranging from 1 (‘strongly disagree’) to 5 (‘strongly agree’), in which a higher score indicated a higher likelihood of reporting either internally or externally.

[5] Statistics for this and other analyses are as follows:




Interpersonal helping: t(7 376) = 11.91, p < 0.001

Individual initiative: t(7 376) = 12.41, p < 0.001

Personal industry: t(7 376) = 7.30, p < 0.001

Loyal boosterism: t(7 376) = 16.70, p < 0.001


Interpersonal helping: F(12 046) = 7.85, p < 0.01

Individual initiative: F(12 045) = 6.64, p < 0.05

Loyal boosterism: F(12 029) = 15.02, p < 0.001


Interpersonal helping: F(11 408) = 5.50, p < 0.05

Individual initiative: F(11 407) = 8.12, p < 0.01

Loyal boosterism: F(11 394) = 15.04, p < 0.001


t(340) = 2.87, p < 0.01


F(12 042) = 125.12, p < 0.01


F(11 405) = 112.20, p < 0.001