Business English Mini-Lesson: Whistleblowers

Business English Mini-Lesson: Whistleblowers

Posted by Sam Brooks on 30th Sep 2019

Here's a lesson to help you improve your Business English. It is on the timely topic of knowing when to be a whistleblower and covers many useful vocabulary words and phrases. The vocabulary is in bold and defined below. Read the article, study the vocabulary and then take the three quizzes below.

When to Blow the Whistle

A whistleblower is an employee who exposes illegal activity. Many employees choose to stay silent in the face of a possible problem at their company. They may worry that if they voice concerns, they’ll get a reputation as a troublemaker or a snitch.

Many companies have a culture of silence. Employees may feel discouraged from providing tip-offs. If they do speak up, their concerns may be brushed off.

Whistleblowers can also face retaliation. According to a New York Times article, “More than one in five employees interviewed said they experienced some sort of reprisal when they reported misconduct. These range from being excluded from decision-making activities and getting the cold shoulder from other employees to being passed over for promotion.”

No wonder so many employees turn a blind eye to unethical behavior. Despite the downsides, you should report any unethical behavior or crooked activities at your organization. If you don’t, your reputation could be on the line. If others know you have this information and see that you’re keeping mum, they may assume you’re involved.

Secondly, reporting unethical behavior can ensure that the wrongdoers will no longer be able to continue their fraudulent activities. It can take just one person to put a stop to this behavior. In 2002, Sherron Watkins blew the whistle at Enron. She had discovered accounting irregularities at the company. She first tried to warn the CEO, telling him in an anonymous memo that the company should come clean. The energy company was hiding billions of dollars in debt from failed deals. It was manipulating its financial statements. Watkins’ testimony to Congress led to the downfall of Enron.

Thirdly, people who are doing illegal things should not be allowed to get away with it. If they are, their bad behavior is likely to continue. They will never learn their lesson. They will continue to scam customers, partners and others and will jeopardize the existence of the company.


in the face of – when confronted with; when one experiences

(to) voice concerns – to express one’s worries

snitch – one who tells on people; one who exposes another’s secrets (always in a negative sense)

tip-off - a piece of information, typically given in a confidential way

(to) speak up – to say what one is thinking, often to a superior 

(to) brush off – dismissed; not given any consideration

retaliation – revenge; the action of harming someone back

reprisal – an act of retaliation

misconduct – unacceptable behavior

(to) get the cold shoulder – to be ignored; to be snubbed by someone (the person who ‘gives’ you the cold shoulder)

passed over for promotion – to not give someone a promotion (even though they may deserve it)

no wonder – it’s not surprising that

(to) turn a blind eye – to ignore; to intentionally not focus on something that is unpleasant

downside – the negative part

crooked – dishonest; illegal (Note: this term is informal)

on the line – at risk

(to) keep mum – to stay silent

wrongdoer – someone who is at fault; one who does wrong

fraudulent – deceitful; illegal

(to) put a stop to – to stop

(to) blow the whistle – to report a wrongdoing, violation, or illegal activity to an employer or to the public

irregularities – corrupt practices, wrongdoing

(to) manipulate – to control or influence unfairly or dishonestly

downfall – ruin; end; collapse

(to) get away with – to escape blame or punishment

(to) learn one’s lesson – to understand that one has done is wrong and change future behavior

(to) jeopardize – to put (someone or something) into a situation in which there is a risk of failure, loss, or harm

(to) scam – to cheat someone


Quiz 1: Fill in the blanks

1) After Tracy reported her company to the Internal Revenue Service, she got the cold ____ from management.
a) arm
b) back
c) shoulder

2) If you think our chief financial officer is doing something wrong, you should blow the ____.
a) horn
b) whistle
c) trumpet

3) An internal investigation at Volkswagen is looking into managers who may have turned a ___ eye to the illegal software being installed in its cars.
a) clear
b) lazy
c) blind

4) Sherron Watkins decided to blow the whistle at Enron. She knew her reputation was ___ the line. 
a) above
b) in
c) on

5) Sherron Watkins tried to get Enron’s leadership to come ____ about the accounting practices she saw.
a) clean
b) fresh
c) open

Quiz 2: Select the best substitute for the phrase in bold

1) If you see fraudulent activities taking place at your company, you shouldn’t keep mum.
a) say anything
b) talk about it much
c) remain silent

2) We used to use the law firm of Corman & Steele, but they always overcharged us. Finally, we got tired of their crooked behavior.
a) honest
b) unfriendly
c) dishonest

3) Acting on a tip-off from any employee, the Internal Revenue Service launched an investigation into MagnaCorp.
a) anonymous information
b) advice
c) records

4) Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes scammed both customers and investors by misrepresenting the accuracy of the company’s blood tests.
a) cheated
b) supported
c) assisted

5) What led to the downfall of Enron? Fraudulent account practices.
a) beginning
b) end
c) success

Quiz 3: Test your comprehension. Choose the best response

1) According to the article, which of the following is one reason employees might not speak up if they suspect wrongdoing at their company?

a) They fear retaliation
b) They worry that they may be wrong
c) They worry they may get arrested

2) The New York Times reports that whistleblowers have faced all of these possible forms of retaliation, EXCEPT:
a) They have been passed over for promotion
b) They are excluded from decision making
c) They are sent to the police for questioning

3) What is one reason you should report unethical behavior when you see it?
a) You want to get a reputation as a ‘snitch’
b) You want to keep you a good reputation
c) You want to get people in trouble


Quiz 1: 1) c; 2) b; 3) c; 4) c; 5) a

Quiz 2: 1) c; 2) c; 3) a; 4) a; 5) b

Quiz 3: 1) a; 2) c; 3) b