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    Whistleblowing in Audit Firms: Do Explicit Protections from...
    research summary posted November 15, 2016 by Jennifer M Mueller-Phillips, tagged 04.0 Independence and Ethics, 04.06 Reporting Ethics Breaches – Self & Others, 14.0 Corporate Matters, 14.02 Corporate Whistle Blowers 
    Whistleblowing in Audit Firms: Do Explicit Protections from Retaliation Activate Implicit Threats of Reprisal?
    Practical Implications:

    This experiment illustrates the fact that organizations should carefully craft their whistleblower hotline policies so as to minimize the salience of retaliation risk. For example, instead of describing explicit protections from retaliation, the organization could explicitly describe the its commitment to ethical behavior. Furthermore, organizations may wish to publicize successful instances of employee whistleblowing as a means of increasing the availability of instances in which whistleblower retaliation did not occur.


    Wainberg, J. and S. Perreault. 2016. Whistleblowing in Audit Firms: Do Explicit Protections from Retaliation Activate Implicit Threats of Reprisal? Behavioral Research in Accounting 28 (1): 83-93. 

    whistleblowing, corporate governance, vividness congruency theory
    Purpose of the Study:

    Whistleblower hotlines are becoming increasingly important in audit firms since auditors are generally viewed as the first line of defense against corporate malfeasance; however, surveys consistently indicate that a substantial number of employees who witness misconduct still choose not to report. Workplace retaliation is the primary reason that individuals are fearful of reporting any wrongdoing that they witness. This is not an irrational fear, as there have been numerous well-publicized examples of lives and careers that have been irreparably damaged as a result of whistleblower retaliation. Consequently, the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners has begun recommending that organizations specifically emphasize anti-retaliation protections offered to employees in addition to basic assurances of confidentiality and anonymity. These specific protections are intended to encourage whistleblowing reporting, but the vividness congruency theory suggests that the inclusion of these protections in whistleblower hotline descriptions may actually inhibit such reporting due to the fact that such explicit protections may activate fearful imagery that is incongruent with the message of protection being offered. 

    Design/Method/ Approach:

    The authors created an experiment in which graduate level students enrolled in an auditing course participated.  

    • The authors find that the inclusion of explicit protections from specific forms of retaliation can lead to an increase in the salience of such threats, thereby significantly lowering the likelihood that the misconduct will be reported through whistleblower hotlines.
    • The authors find that, rather than diminishing the fear of retaliation, auditors’ perceptions of reporting risk were intensified by the presence of explicit protections in the hotline policy. 
    Corporate Matters, Independence & Ethics
    Corporate Whistle Blowers, Reporting Ethics Breaches - Self & Others