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Ethical Issue: Whistleblowing Case Study

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Updated: Jan 28th, 2020

Abstract

Whistle blowing is a courageous act of reporting misdoings of other people. This paper looks at the act in an engineering context, where an engineer raises concern about problems with a current system before or after a disaster. The actor hopes to prevent future disaster based on problems identified. The paper presents the case of Salvador Castro, an engineer with Air-Shields Inc. who discovered design flaws in his company’s product.

The flaws had the potential to cause death to end users, yet reporting them to management did not cause the company to take corrective action. The paper analyses the ethical factors at play.

It intends to explain why Castro ended up losing his job. The paper also provides recommendations for companies and individuals faced with such an engineering ethical dilemma to have measures that ensure there is no victimization of whistle blowers or abuse of whistle blowing privileges.

Introduction

Whistle blowing refers to the action of reporting ethical behaviour of another person or other people. For the whistle-blower, the intention to report comes from the existence of conflicts in morality.

The overall intention is usually to promote justice and fairness and have a positive outcome for the benefit of all stakeholders. On the other hand, those who are subjects of a whistle blowing case may feel betrayed, and the whistle-blower can be considered disloyal (Waytz, Dungan, & Young, 2013).

In engineering circles, whistle blowing can occur before and after a disaster happens. It usually involves the presentation of facts about a disaster, which will put blame on engineers. In cases where the reporting happens after an accident or disaster, the acts of whistle blowing still remains futuristic (Harris, Pritchard, & Rabins, 2009).

The aim of reporting is to ensure that the good of the public and other stakeholders is considered in future engagements.

In some engineering cases, there can be warnings about projects and other endeavours, but these may not qualify as whistle-blowing because they occur within the channels of communication used by the engineering community. Whistle blowing only happens when there is a clear deviation from the norm in reporting of ethical violations.

The case presented in this paper is about a medical electronics engineering firm called Air-Shields Inc. that manufactures life support equipment for medical institutions. An engineer in the company discovers a design flaw and informs his supervisor so that the problem does not reoccur and cause untold damage in future. However, no one in the company takes any steps to remedy the situation (Kumagai, 2004).

Case overview

Kumagai (2004) reports the story of Salvador Castro, a medical electronics engineer who acted as a whistle-blower. Castro came to know that the design of one of the earliest incubators was faulty. Based on his engineering knowledge and role in the company, he immediately informed his supervisor of the problem.

He explained the situation and its consequences, should the company fail to undertake corrective action. It would cost some money to fix the problem, and on the other hand, there was risk of patient death if the problem goes unfixed.

When supervisors and no one else at the company seemed to pay attention to the dangers presented by the design flaw, Castro informed his superiors that he was going to inform the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) so that regulative action against the company would be taken. The intention of reporting to FDA was to save lives of patients that would rely on the faulty incubators.

However, Castro’s actions were not well received by the company. His intention to report to FDA cost him his job. Castro faced an ethical dilemma of keeping his job by not reporting the design flaw, or going ahead to whistle blow and lose his job.

On the other hand, Air-Shields Inc. had to consider making the recommended fix or dismissing the claims and face the risk of being accused of contravening engineering obligations to take actions that benefit health, welfare and security of the public (Kumagai, 2004).

A description of the engineering failure

The persistent objective should be to protect the safety, health, and welfare of the public in any work done by engineers. Where there are abuses in areas that affect the public interest, an engineer is expected to speak out (Saini, 2012). Castro spoke when he discovered a design flaw. He did the right thing as an engineer.

However, the company’s failure to address the flaw was an engineering failure, a deliberate mistake that increased the risk of death for innocent people. On the other hand, Castro made a mistake of not fully understanding how the system operates.

Going directly to supervisors with the information was good, but it would also present trust issues with management. As a result, there were conflicts of interest. The company failed its ethical test by retaliating against Castro’s whistle blowing activities, instead of embracing required changes.

An in-depth analysis of the major issues surrounding the failure

Whistle blowing has moral complexities. An accusation and a retaliation both produce injury. Castro’s action to report the flaw threatened his career. Similarly, his actions also threatened the careers of other employees in the company.

Thus, an analysis of the case reveals that there could be a situation where actions by the company against one individual, such as Castro are meant to protect the careers of many other people, the staff members. The company needs to have a system of dealing with bad news about its manufacturing process. It needs to accommodate the findings by engineers that highlight errors in its products.

The setup of safety and corrective mechanisms for its engineering and manufacturing processes is a moral requirement. If these systems were in place, then the reporting by Castro would be welcome. The company did not have a means of informing the public about its products.

In such instances, the expectation by the public is that the company will issue a product recall, if the design flaw is very grave. Otherwise, it may issue a cautionary message. If the problem is not very serious, the company can fail to inform the public so that it does not create unnecessary panic. Nevertheless, it must undertake corrective action for the problem identified.

An analysis of the ethical lapses

When an engineer like Castro is making a whistle blowing attempt, he or she assumes that someone somewhere having the right authority will respond to the discovery. Such a response would arise because the person understands the moral importance of disclosure. In many cases, the whistle-blower puts this faith in the employer’s top management. This is a mistake.

The action assumes that top management will be free of corruption. It also fails to consider the repercussions of the report. The action dramatizes the moral situation of many engineers who have the ability to detect problems that can affect the public.

However, engineers must also develop the capacity to convince others to react. If Castro had the required skills in negotiating, persuading and allying with colleagues, he could have approached the case differently. He could have convinced many of his colleagues to consider the moral implications of the flaw and compelled the company to take action (Waytz, Dungan, & Young, 2013).

A formal communication channel that relies on the management levels of the company acted as an impediment to the overall effectiveness of whistle blowing. Communication to supervisors may have not been interpreted well (Harris, Pritchard, & Rabins, 2009).

The company needed an alternative feedback mechanism that allows different levels of management and technical departments to get information without allowing one level or individual to dictate message reception.

If this were the case, some other managers or engineers would have taken up the case based on its moral principles and acted right. Another reason for the observed reaction to whistle-blowing in Castro’s case is that the valuation of fairness by the whistle blower was different from that of the company.

Recommendations for actions

Whistle blowers who receive heroic acclaim are rare. Practical, ethical reactions to whistle blowers in engineering may not always match expectations of the whistle blower. It is important for both parties in the accusations to understand their motivations and work towards reducing the cost of their actions while they increase benefits to all parties involved.

Companies should not just interpret whistle blowing as a disloyal action, especially when it happens through the available channels of organizational communication. The best way is for engineers at all levels of the organization to set up a brute force deliberate reasoning process that will override any tendencies of partiality or in-group favouritism (Waytz, Dungan, & Young, 2013).

This will ensure that all cases receive fair treatment and actions are based on facts and values of an organization. Such a system will also prevent abuse of whistle blowing privileges for personal vendettas.

References

Harris, C., Pritchard, M., & Rabins, J. (2009). Engineering ethics: Concepts and cases. New York: Wadsworth Cengage Learning.

Kumagai, J. (2004, April 1). The whistle-blower’s dilemma. Retrieved from IEEE Specturm:

Saini, A. (2012, February 20). Social engineering. Retrieved from Engineering and Technology Magazine:

Waytz, A., Dungan, J., & Young, L. (2013). The whistleblower’s dilemma and the fairness-loyalty tradeoff. Journal of Experiemental Social Psychology, 49, 1027-1033.

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IvyPanda. 2020. "Ethical Issue: Whistleblowing." January 28, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/ethical-issue-whistleblowing/.

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IvyPanda. (2020) 'Ethical Issue: Whistleblowing'. 28 January.

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