Internal Whistleblowing in the Public Service: A Matter of Trust
To cite: Taylor, J. 2018. ‘Internal Whistleblowing in the Public Service: A Matter of Trust’.
Public Administration Review, 78, 5, 717-726.
Although employee reporting of workplace ethical violations is recognized as an important
measure for managing the integrity of the public service, not many public employees who
have observed ethical violations actually report them. This study examines and compares the
links between employee perceptions of trustworthiness of different organizational members
and internal whistleblowing. It differentiates between trustworthy co-workers, supervisors,
and senior managers. It uses cross-sectional data from 10,850 employees in the Australian
Public Service in 2013 and 2016, which are aggregated to construct longitudinal data for 60
organizations. Among the three groups examined, perceptions of trustworthy senior managers
are found to be most strongly related to internal whistleblowing.
• Employees are likely to blow the whistle on wrongdoing in their organization if they
trust their co-workers, supervisors, and senior managers.
• Among the organizational members, trust in senior managers has the most impact on
employee decision to internally blow the whistle.
• As organizationally sanctioned representatives and role models, senior managers
should understand that their ability, integrity, and behaviors can significantly affect
employee trust in them, and in turn internal whistleblowing.
Research has shown that many public employees who observe illegal, immoral or illegitimate
practices (henceforth called ethical violations) in the workplace do not report the incidents
(Hassan 2015; Brown, Mazurski, and Olsen 2008; Søreide 2014). Menzel (1999) went as far
as to label public employees “morally mute,” and claimed “that modern public administration
has suffered from moral muteness since its founding in the 1880s” (522). Studies that can
provide a better understanding of how to support and foster whistleblowing in the public
sector workplace are, therefore, valuable.
This article aims to test whether employees’ decision to blow the whistle in the
Australian Public Service (APS) is influenced by the trustworthiness of organizational
members. This study differs from most whistleblowing studies in three ways. First, it focuses
on employee reporting of ethical violations through internal channels in the organization or
internal whistleblowing. Most APS employees who have observed ethical violations in the
workplace internally blow the whistle in accordance with the APS guidelines on reporting
wrongdoing (APSC 2015). Similarly, nearly all U.S. whistleblowers start the process by
reporting wrongdoing within the organization rather than outside. External whistleblowing is
considered to occur later in the process, often when an organization has failed to address
initial reports (Miceli, Near, and Dworkin 2013).
Second, this study focuses on actual whistleblowing, and not whistleblowing
intention. Whistleblowing intention, which is examined in several studies (Hassan, Wright,
and Yukl 2014; Thaler and Helmig 2015), is not identical to actual whistleblowing. Mesmer-
Magnus and Viswesvaran’s (2005) meta-analytic results show dissimilarities between the
antecedents of whistleblowing intention and those of actual whistleblowing.
Third, this investigation of the trust-whistleblowing relationship in the public sector
differs from most studies that are conducted in the private sector. Interpersonal trust can be
particularly important to public employees. The interdependent nature of work tasks in the
public sector necessitates employees to trust one another at work (Lau and Liden 2008).
Importantly, public servants have a distinct ethical responsibility to serve the public interest
and are generally expected and trusted to maintain high standards of integrity when serving
the public interest (Frederickson 1993; Lavena 2016).
This research adopts a multifoci approach to examine the trust-whistleblowing
relationship. Most research on trust focus on one organizational group, such as supervisors.
Employees, however, typically develop and maintain multiple trust relationships within the
organization (Fulmer and Ostroff 2017). Meta-analytic results also show that different
referents of trust affect different outcomes (Colquitt, Scott, and LePine 2007; Dirks and
Ferrin 2002). Since organizational members, ranging from co-workers to senior managers,
have some response to a whistleblowing incident (e.g., support or hostility), it is important to
consider their effects on internal whistleblowing. This study distinguishes between
trustworthy co-workers, supervisors, and senior managers.
This research adopts the general approach used by other scholars when examining
employees’ trust judgements by focusing on trustworthiness (Cho and Lee 2011; Cho and
Rinquist 2010). Trustworthiness is an antecedent of trust. According to Mayer, Davis, and
Schoorman (1995), trustworthiness covers the trustee’s ability (his/her competence or
knowledge and skills in his/her role in the organization), benevolence (his/her concern about
the well-being of the trustor), and integrity (his/her adherence to a set of acceptable principles
or shared values). The characteristics, skills, and behaviors of the trustee can influence the
development of trust.
Whistleblowing is defined as “The disclosure by organization members (former or current) of
illegal, immoral, or illegitimate practices under the control of their employers, to persons or
organizations that may be able to effect action” (Near and Miceli 1985, 4). Public employees
who internally blow the whistle on ethical violations help their organization by minimizing
damages to the reputation of the organization and government, loss of public trust, and
disruptions to services (PwC 2016; Victor and Cullen 1988). They also help to support an
ethical climate in organizations (Miceli and Near 1985). When employees stay silent, they
can contribute to the norms of silence (Morrison 2014), and a high tolerance for ethical
violations in the organization.
As a behavior, whistleblowing is viewed in multiple ways. To some, it is a “beneficial
deviant behavior” in response to norms of silence about wrongdoing (e.g., Warren 2003). To
others, it is an in-role behavior in that public employees are morally and legally bound to
maintain high standards of integrity, conduct, and concern for the public interest (e.g., Lavena
2016). For example, clause 1.3(f) of the Australian Public Service Commissioner’s
Directions 2013 requires APS employees “to report and address misconduct and other
unacceptable behaviour by public servants in a fair, timely and effective way. Failure to
report suspected misconduct may itself warrant consideration as a potential breach of the
Code” (APSC 2016, 48). There are also those who see whistleblowing as a prosocial behavior
because it is aimed at benefiting others (Dozier and Miceli 1985; Miceli, Roach, and Near
Regardless of whether it is viewed as an in-role or prosocial behavior, internal
whistleblowing can be facilitated by interpersonal trust. Social exchange relationships
between organizational members are based on reciprocity and trust (Cropanzano and Mitchell
2005). Lack of trust creates no sense of obligation to “do right” by the relationship. If high
quality social exchanges between organizational members are facilitated by trust, then it can
be one way to encourage internal whistleblowing.
In their model of trust, Mayer et al. (1995) define trust as “the willingness to be vulnerable to
the actions of another party based on the expectation that the other will perform a particular
action important to the trustor, irrespective of the ability to monitor or control the other party”
(712). Trust is commonly divided into two main dimensions. Cognition-based trust refers to
confidence in the trustor’s track record and reputation for competence, responsibility,
reliability, and dependability in the workplace (Colquitt, LePine, Piccolo, Zapata, and Rich
2012; McAllister 1995). It is similar to Mayer et al.’s (1995) ability and integrity dimensions
of trustworthiness; both constructs are concerned with the competence and credibility of the
trustor (Schaubroeck, Peng, and Hannah 2013). Cognition-based trust is also similar to
knowledge-based trust (Lewicki and Bunker 1995) because they are based on work
performance-relevant cognitions. This implies that confidence in the general and specialized
work-related skills of the trustor, such as those on performance and diversity management, is
important for the development of cognition-based trust.
Affect-based trust refers to an emotional attachment to the trustor that reflects
confidence in the trustor’s concern for the trustee’s welfare (McAllister 1995; Schaubroeck et
al. 2013). It is similar to Mayer et al.’s (1995) benevolence dimension of trustworthiness. It is
an “exchange deepener,” wherein the trustor has “a deeper sense of obligation in the
relationship” with the trustee (Colquitt et al. 2012, 2). Since the trustee’s needs are likely to
be multiple, confidence that the trustor cares enough to address the trustee’s multiple needs is
relevant for the development of affect-based trust.
As a first step, it is essential to consider the trustworthiness of organizational members who
are in close proximity to whistleblowers: immediate co-workers. Since employees spend most
of their working hours with co-workers, interactions with and trust of co-workers can affect
On one hand, trustworthy co-workers can discourage internal whistleblowing. This
can occur at an organizational or group level through the enforcement of norms. Norms are
“informal structural characteristics of groups and intended to regulate member behavior”
(Greenberger, Miceli, and Cohen 1987, 528). According to the social information processing
model (Salancik and Pfeffer 1978), social ties, or what others think at work, can exert
pressures on employees to conform to group norms. Beliefs of co-worker invalidation can
affect how they label the ethical violation. They may think that others would not view their
judgment as legitimate (Miceli et al. 2013). They may define what they have observed not to
be wrongful if they think trusted co-workers disapprove whistleblowing.
Those who consider the act to be wrongful may still decide to stay silent. Empirical
research shows that collegial loyalty and solidarity are important factors influencing
whistleblowing by co-workers (Lee, Heilmann, and Near 2004; Pillay, Reddy, and Morgan
2017; Treviño and Victor 1992). Loyalty towards the organization and its members can be
greater than loyalty toward the public interest (de Graaf and Huberts 2008). Rothwell and
Baldwin (2007) refer to the code of silence in police organizations as “a means of internal
cohesion necessary for solidarity and protection,” ensuring police officers “will act according
to their collective well-being” (610).
At a personal level, the strong bond of trust developed between co-workers over time
in a social exchange relationship may not be easily broken by a single corruption incident.
The observer might question his/her judgment of the incident, or attempt to find a legitimate
reason for the trusted wrongdoer’s action, such as external coercion. He/she is likely to
approach the trusted wrongdoer in an attempt to make sense of the confusing situation before
deciding whether or not to report the incident. Feelings of obligations to reciprocate trusted
co-workers’ consistent favorable treatment of them in the social exchange relationship may
make them hesitant to report the corruption. In his investigation of the archives in three
bureaus of integrity in Amsterdam, de Graaf (2010) found that some were worried about
destroying the careers of wrongdoers. Feelings of trust and obligation for co-workers can
hinder whistleblowing when employees believe their action will do more harm than good to
individuals/groups in their organization.
On the other hand, trustworthy co-workers can foster internal whistleblowing through
the enforcement of appropriate group norms and personal social exchanges. If employees
trust their co-workers to favor whistleblowing, shield them from retaliation, or ameliorate the
effects of whistleblowing, then they feel more empowered to stop wrongdoing (Miceli, Near,
Rehg, and Van Scotter 2012; Perry 1992). Co-workers who support whistleblowers provide
them with more power relative to their organizations, which can reduce the likelihood of the
organizations challenging the whistleblowers (Near and Miceli 1986). When employees
perceive their co-workers are trustworthy, they are likely to believe that they are not alone in
their stand against ethical violations. Instead of ignoring, questioning, or responding
negatively to their action, trustworthy co-workers are likely to reassure employees about the
value of internal whistleblowing. They can provide the essential emotional and pragmatic
support base for employees to engage in internal whistleblowing. It is hypothesized that
H1: Perceptions of trustworthy co-workers are positively related to internal
While the above hypothesis suggests the importance of co-workers for whistleblowing,
leaders may exert greater influence than co-workers on whistleblowing. They can structure
the work context to counter strong group pressures against whistleblowing and increase
employees’ inclination to blow the whistle (Treviño and Victor 1992). In Australia, leaders
play an important role in internal whistleblowing; most public employees report ethical
violations to their supervisors or senior managers (Donkin, Smith, and Brown 2008).
The significance of trustworthy leaders is supported by ethical leadership research.
Ethical leadership is critical for encouraging ethical conduct, including a willingness to
engage in internal whistleblowing (de Graaf 2010; Hassan et al. 2014; Thaler and Helmig
2015). Ethical leadership typically contains two dimensions. The first is a moral person,
which covers characteristics, such as honesty, and principles. The second is a moral manager,
which contains behaviors, such as setting ethical standards, and serving as a role model.
These characteristics are similar to cognition- and affect-based trust.
The trustworthiness of immediate supervisors can be significant for whistleblowing.
According to field theory (Lewin 1943), employees react more strongly to psychologically
proximate factors in the environment than to distal factors. Employees interact with
immediate supervisors on work-related matters on a more frequent basis than senior
managers. In their trickle-up model of trust, Fulmer and Ostroff (2017) report that the greater
familiarity and more frequent interactions employees have with supervisors are more salient
in forming trust, which can then be transferred upward onto the less familiar senior managers.
By serving as the link between management and employees, supervisors are often the
first people employees approach when they witness ethical violations. Detert and Treviño
(2010) found that although senior managers were vital for creating a work environment
where employees felt safe to speak up against ethical violations, and they displayed
characteristics similar to those of immediate supervisors, not many employees directly
reported to them. Using US Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey data, Kim and Ko (2014)
found that trust in supervision is critical for promoting knowledge-sharing behavior.
Trustworthy supervisors can provide employees with a supportive and secure environment in
their immediate workplace to engage in internal whistleblowing. It is expected that
H2: Perceptions of trustworthy supervisors are positively related to internal
Trustworthy senior managers can also play a prominent role in fostering
whistleblowing. According to Yang and Mossholder (2010), trust in one's supervisor is more
immediate and circumscribed, whereas trust in management is more general. When
employees trust their supervisors, they tend to follow the supervisors’ decisions and
instructions (Dirks 2006). When employees trust senior managers, they tend to internalize the
organization’s goals and policies (Rhoades, Eisenberger, and Armeli 2001), which can cover
those on ethical conduct and internal whistleblowing.
As organizationally sanctioned representatives, senior managers symbolize the
organization and its values. According to signaling theory, certain organizational actions can
cause employees to form desirable or undesirable attributions about the organization
(Lambert 2000; Rynes and Barber 1990). By occupying top positions, senior managers’
actions set the tone in the organization with respect to integrity. When it comes to controlling
ethical violations, the buck ultimately stops with senior managers. Since it is the
responsibility of management to prevent and correct ethical violations, their existence in the
workplace can signal a failure by senior managers to uphold this responsibility (Miceli et al.
2012), and suggest that the organization tolerates them.
Although senior managers may have less contact with employees than supervisors,
they are likely to have more power and resources for managing ethical violations in the
workplace. In the Australian public sector, senior managers generally investigate
whistleblowing reports more than other groups – specialist audit, fraud, ethical standards, or
investigation staff (Smith 2010). Fear of senior managers is a major reason for non-reporting
in the Australian public sector, particularly when these managers are also the perpetrators of
ethical violations (Wortley, Cassematis and Donkin 2008). Trustworthy senior managers are,
therefore, likely to be important for whistleblowing, and influence whistleblowing more than
trustworthy co-workers and immediate supervisors. The two hypotheses are shown below.
H3: Perceptions of trustworthy senior managers are positively related to internal
H4: Internal whistleblowing is more strongly associated with perceptions of trustworthy
senior managers than perceptions of trustworthy co-workers and supervisors.
This study uses the Australian government data - APS Employee Census – collected in 2013
(n = 102,219) and 2016 (n = 96,762). The APSC conducts the APS Employee Census every
year on employees in APS agencies with at least 100 employees. The sample is stratified by
level, organizational size, organization, and location. Like other similar datasets, such as the
US Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey (Fernandez, Resh, Moldogaziev, and Oberfield
2015) the Australian APS Employee Census does not track each employee’s responses over
time. It, however, tracks responses of organizations.
Respondents in this study are selected in the following way. First, only those who
reported having observed workplace ethical violations are included (N = 8,853 in 2013, and N
= 3,495 in 2016). Second, only organizations that appear in both periods are included.
Twenty-eight organizations in 2013 are not found in 2016 (N = 1169), and there are four new
organizations in 2016 (N = 99). Respondents from these organizations are removed. Third,
organizations with less than 10 respondents in both years are excluded. The final pooled
dataset contains 10,685 respondents in 60 organizations; N is 7,639 in 2013, and N is 3,046 in
2016. Most of the respondents in the pooled dataset were women (60.3%), and aged between
30-59 years (84.7%). A majority did not have university qualifications (56.3%), and occupied
non-managerial positions (72.2%). Most have worked in their organization for at least five
The respondents were asked the following question: “Excluding behaviour reported to you as
part of your duties, in the last 12 months have you witnessed another APS employee in your
agency engaging in behaviour that you consider may be serious enough to be viewed as
corruption? They were provided with the APSC’s (2015) definition of corruption. Those who
reported having witnessed corruption were subsequently asked to provide a dichotomous
yes/no response (represented by 1 and 0 respectively) to the following question: “Did you
report the potentially corrupt behaviour [in accordance to your agency’s policies and
procedures]?” This item, which measures reporting of ethical violations, is the dependent
The independent variables are perceptions of trustworthy senior managers,
supervisors, and co-workers. They do not directly measure trust, particularly in relation to
workplace ethical violations. Instead, they measure factors that can contribute to the
development of cognition- and affect-based trust across different areas in the workplace, such
as performance and risk management. When judging the trustworthiness of an organizational
member for any incident, employees are likely to consider the general trustworthiness of that
individual, which is established from multiple observations of and experiences with that
individual in various aspects of work. On this basis, the measures tap into the respondents’
views of the trustor’s characteristics, skills, and behaviors across different areas of work that
may affect the development of trust.
The use of an existing government dataset to develop measures of trustworthiness is,
however, not ideal for testing the hypotheses. These measures limit the ability to measure
trustworthiness more directly, and in a more standardized way. Although confidence in the
trustor’s integrity is measured more directly, most items indirectly measure confidence in the
trustor’s ability and concern for the trustee’s welfare. At best, they should be viewed as proxy
measures of trustworthiness.
Organizational commitment is included as a control variable. Employees’ affective
attachment to the organization may encourage them to better identify with the goals of the
organization, and do what is right for the organization, such as report ethical violations. The
survey items in the independent and control variables are provided in the appendix. The
appendix also presents summary results of confirmatory factor analysis (CFA) of these multi-
itemed variables. The CFA fit statistics fall within the thresholds, suggesting a good model fit
(Fornell and Larcker 1981).
APS Trends of Ethical Violations and Reporting
Figure 1 shows the proportion of employees who have observed suspected ethical violations
in the APS over the past five years. Only a small proportion had observed an unethical
behavior. Within the 2012-2016 period, observations of ethical violations peaked in 2012,
with 12 percent of respondents witnessing suspected workplace ethical violations (N=9,583).
This dropped to nine percent in 2013 (N =8,853), three percent in 2014 (N =2,375), and four
percent in 2015 and 2016 (N =3,050 and 3,495 respectively). The findings suggest that the
government integrity policies and approaches are working as far as deterring such violations
in the APS. The fact there remains a small proportion of respondents who are incapable of
identifying ethical violation is, however, a concern.
<insert figure 1>
<insert figure 2>
Figure 2 shows the proportion of respondents who have reported the behavior in
accordance with their organization’s policies and procedures. In 2012 and 2013, the
proportion who reported an ethical violation was larger than that who failed to report the
incident. In contrast, the proportion who blew the whistle in 2015 and 2016 was smaller than
those who stayed silent. Together, the results suggest that although the incidence of ethical
violations had been relatively low in recent years, the incidence of internal whistleblowing
had dropped significantly in 2015/16 compared to 2012/13.
Descriptive Statistics and Correlations
Table 1 presents the descriptive statistics and correlations of the study variables. A
comparison of the mean values of the three different groups of organizational members show
higher levels of trust for co-workers and supervisors than senior managers. Perceptions of
trustworthy senior managers are relatively low, between “neither disagree and agree” and
<insert table 1>
In addition, internal whistleblowing is positively related to perceptions of trustworthy
co-workers, supervisors and senior managers (r = 0.07, 0.08, and 0.15 respectively; p <
0.001). It is also positively associated with organizational commitment (r = 0.15; p < 0.001).
The trust-internal whistleblowing relationship is next examined using regression analyses. It
is analyzed in two steps. First, a cross-sectional analysis is conducted at the individual level,
while accounting for the organization in which the respondent works. This multilevel model
enables us to estimate how much of the variation in internal whistleblowing is due to
perceived trustworthy organizational members within and across organizations. The total
number of respondents in 2013 and 2016 is 10,685. Since whistleblowing is measured with a
dichotomous variable, a logistic (random effects) regression is used.
Second, the analysis is performed at the organizational level. The total number of
organizations is 60. The average scores of the study variables are calculated in each
organization for 2013 and 2016. The changes in average perceived trustworthy organizational
members in an organization from 2013 and 2016, and the corresponding changes in average
internal whistleblowing in the same organization from 2013 to 2016 are analyzed. Using a
fixed-effects panel (linear) regression on aggregated data at the organization level reduces the
risk of endogeneity issues and common-method bias (CMB) (van Loon, Kjeldsen, Andersen,
Vandenabeele, and Leisink 2016). Panel analysis minimizes CMB which is typically an issue
in cross-sectional studies using single source self-reported measures (Favero and Bullock
2015; Jakobsen and Jensen 2015).
The regression analysis is conducted hierarchically. The association between internal
whistleblowing and perceived trustworthy organizational members is tested as follows.
Model I focuses on co-workers, model II on supervisors, and model III on senior managers.
This enables the effect of each group to be analysed separately, and compared to each other.
Model IV incorporates the control variables to test whether the relationships are robust when
potential confounders are controlled. The findings of a logistic regression on the pooled
cross-sectional data for 2013 and 2016 at the individual level are presented in table 2.
<insert table 2>
The findings support the hypotheses. Model I shows a positive association between
trustworthy co-workers and internal whistleblowing, which supports H1. Model II shows
trustworthy supervisors are positively related to whistleblowing, which supports H2. Model
III shows a positive association between trustworthy senior managers and internal
whistleblowing, which supports H3.
Model IV, in which control variables are added, shows two prominent features. First,
the relationship between trustworthy senior managers and internal whistleblowing remains
significant. The findings on trustworthy co-workers and supervisors are no longer significant.
Second, internal whistleblowing shows the strongest relationship with trustworthy senior
managers, which supports H4.
<insert table 3>
The organizational-level analysis involves aggregating the respondents’ scores at the
organizational level. Since the fixed-effects panel regression at the organization level rules
out influence by time-invariant factors, only factors that change over time are controlled (van
Loon et al. 2016). The frequency distribution of the respondents’ gender, education, job
position, and tenure in both periods are quite similar to each other but there are some
variations in the respondents’ age. It is added as a control, along with organizational
commitment. The results in Model I and Model II show that the relationships between
average internal reporting and average trustworthy co-workers and supervisors over time are
not significant at the 0.05 level. Only average trustworthy senior managers are positively
associated with average internal whistleblowing between 2013 and 2016. This significant
relationship does not change when the model is controlled for organizational commitment
and average age. The final model explains 48 percent of the change in whistleblowing from
2013 to 2016 within the organizations.
This section is structured in the following manner. It starts by summarizing key findings. It
then discusses the implications of the findings. Next, it notes the research limitations, and
offers suggestions for further research.
Summary of Findings
This study, which examines the relationship between perceptions of trustworthy
organizational members and internal whistleblowing, contains three key findings. First,
despite the existence of codes of conduct emphasizing the importance of employee reporting
of wrongdoing (APSC 2016), most respondents did not engage in whistleblowing (figure 1).
It confirms Brown et al.’s (2008) finding of low levels of whistleblowing in the Australian
public sector. The proportion of respondents who blew the whistle also fell from 56 percent
in 2012 to 32 percent in 2016 (figure 2).
Whistleblowing can be shaped by values and norms, which differ across organizations
and individuals. A situation can be labelled by some employees as an ethical violation but
others may not view the same situation as illegal, immoral, or illegitimate. Miceli et al.
(2013) state that determining what constitutes wrongdoing is problematic: “saying that
something is wrong only if it violates organizational norms is inadequate, because
organizational norms sometimes support fraud, pollution, or other bad behavior that conflict
with norms of other groups, such as society” (152). They also note that “declaring behavior
wrong only if it violates societal laws is inadequate, because that standard fails to consider
immoral behavior or conflicts between nations’ laws” (152-153).
Employees are reluctant to blow the whistle internally for various reasons. They may
believe their organizations will ignore their reporting and fail to take corrective actions
against ethical violations. They also fear reprisals (APSC 2013; de Graaf 2010; Hassan et al.
2014). Further, they may not trust their organizational members. This study found
particularly low levels of trust in senior managers.
Second, perceptions of trustworthy organizational members – co-workers,
supervisors, and senior managers – are related to internal whistleblowing. Respondents who
considered their co-workers, supervisors, and senior managers to be trustworthy engaged in
more whistleblowing than those who regarded these groups to be untrustworthy. The findings
support the importance of trust in high quality exchanges between organizational members,
as proposed by the social exchange theory (Cropanzano and Mitchell 2005; Konovsky and
Pugh 1994). Since there is so much at stake in whistleblowing, employees need to trust
organizational members before they can engage in the behavior. Interpersonal trust can
reduce social uncertainty and transaction costs, and improve information sharing and
cooperative behavior (Cho and Lee 2011; Dirks and Ferrin 2001; Williamson 1993), which is
relevant for whistleblowing.
Third, trustworthy senior managers appear to matter more than trustworthy
supervisors and co-workers for whistleblowing. This study contradicts private sector finding
that supervisors are particularly important referents of trust (e.g., Dirks and Ferrin 2002). In
the U.S. public sector, although Lavena (2016) reported an inverse relationship between
supervisory trust and whistleblowing, overall, supervisory trust was found to be positively
correlated with knowledge sharing behavior (Kim and Ko 2014), and cooperation (Cho and
The differences in findings are possibly due to contextual differences, such as country
differences (U.S. vs. Australia). For example, since senior managers investigate
whistleblowing reports more than other staff members in the Australian public sector (Smith
2010), they are likely to be viewed by employees as having a legitimate role in handling
whistleblowing cases. In addition, although whistleblower mistreatment is uncommon in the
Australian public sector, those who were treated badly were twice more likely to point the
finger at managers than co-workers (Brown and Olsen 2008). Perceptions that senior
managers have a legitimate role in managing whistleblowing reports, and may retaliate
against whistleblowing acts can increase the importance of trust in managers.
The implications of the findings to the Australian context are three-fold. First, the positive
link between internal whistleblowing and perceived trustworthiness of organizational leaders,
particularly senior managers, suggest that attempts to build trust should address the
competence and integrity of leaders (cognition-based trust), and supportive and fair treatment
of employees by leaders (affect-based trust). Managers and anyone whose duties include
handling internal whistleblowing should be properly trained in integrity management. If
employees fail to internally report wrongdoing because they do not trust senior managers,
then it is important for these managers to possess the critical knowledge, mindset, and skills
for managing reports and investigations of ethical violations, and supporting whistleblowers
fairly and effectively.
Second, organizations should minimize the personal costs of internal whistleblowing,
for example, by providing adequate support and protection for internal whistleblowers (Cho
and Song 2015). Barriers to internal whistleblowing should be identified and addressed.
Whistleblowers should be offered assistance and support throughout the process, and
provided with feedback to reassure them that their reports are taken seriously (de Graaf
2010). They should be treated with respect and care (Near and Miceli 2016). Measures aimed
at minimizing retaliation against internal whistleblowers must be well-designed and
Third, low levels of internal whistleblowing and trust in organizational members,
particularly senior managers, suggest the importance of improving whistleblowers’ access to
external channels, including strengthening external reviews of ethical violations in
organizations. Whistleblowers may choose external channels if they believe the offences are
serious (Miceli and Near 1984), or they fear reprisals if they internally report the offences
(King 1997). They may believe that external investigative authorities have the power and
capability to exert pressure on the organization to take corrective action (Miceli and Near
1992). Organizational integrity management policies and training programs for employees
should thus provide information about access to different reporting channels, and when these
channels are most appropriately used (Smith 2010).
Although there is no specialist anti-corruption agency at the federal level in Australia,
there are several external government bodies that have the power to investigate ethical
violations in federal organizations. For example, the Australian Public Service Commissioner
can investigate wrongdoing at the request of an agency head or the Prime Minister on serious
matters where there is a need for an independent, expert advice (APSC 2015). It implies
better coordination between the organization in which the wrongdoing occurs and external
integrity organization(s) to ensure the case is well-managed as early as possible (Donkin et al.
2008). According to Smith (2010), external integrity organizations in Australia may not be
well-resourced to handle large numbers of whistleblower reports. External authorities should,
therefore, be adequately equipped with the essential resources, authority, and capability to
manage whistleblower reports. In short, in addition to providing potential whistleblowers
with guidance, support, and protection on internal and external reporting, this study’s
findings suggest the importance of strengthening organizations and external integrity bodies
with the resources and capability to investigate wrongdoing effectively.
Limitations and Future Research
The results of this research should be viewed in light of three limitations. First, caution needs
to be taken in generalizing the results beyond this sample of APS employees. The public
sector covers organisations of all types and sizes across federal, state, and local levels. This
dataset focuses on Australian federal organisations containing at least 100 employees. Future
research should consider replicating this study with other contexts to increase
Second, the concepts in this study are measured from a government dataset that is not
designed to provide a comprehensive measure of these constructs. This research has used
secondary data to address a question that was not considered when the survey was conducted.
The trustworthiness items do not directly measure the respondents’ trust of their co-workers,
supervisors, and senior managers, especially in relation to ethical violations and internal
whistleblowing. The items measure perceptions of these groups’ characteristics and behaviors
in general work activities that can influence the development of trust. For example,
organizational leaders who are skilled at managing employee performance issues are
generally viewed as competent in their job, particularly when managing underperformance is
a major issue in the APS (Taylor 2015). Confidence in the trustor’s set of skills can improve
one’s views of the trustor’s competence or ability (Mayer and Davis 1999), which is useful
for building cognition-based trust. Similarly, confidence in the trustor’s commitment to
matters that affect employee wellbeing, from workplace safety to information sharing and
respectful behavior, can strengthen affect-based trust.
Nevertheless, the fact that this study has relied on a government census to develop the
measures and the limitations associated with this approach – limited capacity to measure
trustworthiness more directly, and in a more standardized way – should be noted. Future
studies should use established measures of trust/trustworthiness, particularly those that refer
to the ethical violation/whistleblowing incident.
Third, on the individual level, a cross-sectional design is used, which potentially
suffers from CMB. The organization-level panel analysis, which is a step forward, shows the
same significant finding between trustworthy senior managers and internal reporting. The
insignificant findings on trustworthy co-workers and supervisors at the organizational level
may be due to the small sample size (N = 60), and the weaker influence of trustworthy co-
workers and supervisors on whistleblowing compared to that of trustworthy senior managers.
There may also be more variations within an organization than between organizations (van
Loon et al. 2016). It is apparent that each method has its advantages and disadvantages.
Future studies should utilize a large individual panel.
This research focuses on internal whistleblowing and internal referents of trust. It is,
however, possible for employees to choose external whistleblowing over internal
whistleblowing when they, for example, do not trust organizational members, or believe
external officials have more power than internal officials to take corrective action (Miceli and
Near 1992). Future studies can include external whistleblowing, and external referents of
trust (e.g., external investigative bodies). By examining different referents of trust and
different types of whistleblowing, these studies should provide a better understanding of the
conditions that affect the trust-whistleblowing relationship.
Unlike most private sector research and U.S. public administration research, this study
did not find supervisors to be major referents of trust. The importance placed on the
trustworthiness of different organizational members may vary with different contexts. Further
studies can examine this, particularly compare the trust-whistleblowing relationship, in
different contexts, such as levels of government (e.g., state vs. federal government),
industries (e.g., public vs. private settings), and countries (e.g., U.S. vs. China). A
comparative perspective can add to the whistleblowing literature, which has largely relied on
single-context research (e.g., single level of government or country). Different countries are
also likely to have different national culture and legislative support for whistleblowing, which
can affect the labelling of wrongdoing, whistleblowing behavior, and its consequences
(Miceli and Near 2013).
Finally, further studies can examine the trust-whistleblowing relationship by type of
wrongdoing. Whistleblowing rates typically increase with more serious than less serious
types of wrongdoing (Near and Miceli 2016). The importance placed on trust may also vary
with the severity of wrongdoing.
Internal whistleblowing is recognized as an important measure for managing the integrity of
public service. Yet, studies have shown that many public employees who have observed
ethical violations often fail to report incidents (de Graaf and Huberts 2008; Miceli et al.
2013). This study found that perceptions of trustworthy co-workers, supervisors, and senior
managers are positively linked to internal whistleblowing in public service. Among these
three groups, trustworthy senior managers appear to matter most for whistleblowing.
Government efforts to educate employees about the significance of ethical conduct in public
service should not overlook those at senior levels. Senior managers should understand their
obligation to effectively encourage and support internal whistleblowing (de Graaf 2015).
They should know that as role models, their ability, integrity, and behaviors can affect
employee perceptions of their trustworthiness, which is closely linked to internal
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Figure 1 Employee Observations of Workplace Ethical Violations in the APS, 2012-2016
Source: APS Employee Census 2012-2016
11.9 9.4 2.6 3.6 4
97.7 8.5 77.4
92.3 88.9 89.4 88.6
2012 2013 2014 2015 2016
% of respondents
Have witnessed ethical violations Unsure whether the behavior is unethical
Have not witnessed ethical violations
Figure 2 Employee Responses to Workplace Ethical Violations in the APS, 2012-2016
Source: APS Employee Census 2012-2016
2012 2013 2014 2015 2016
% of respondents
Report the incident Did not report the incident
Table 1 Descriptive Statistics and Correlations
1. Internal whistleblowing
2. Trustworthy co-workers
3. Trustworthy supervisors
4. Trustworthy senior managers
5. Organizational commitment
* = p < 0.05; ** = p < 0.01; *** = p < 0.001.
Table 2 Relationship Between Trust and Internal Whistleblowing: Individual-Level Analysis
Trustworthy senior managers
bachelor's degree and higher)
Job position (1=managers)
Tenure (1=at least 5 years service)
Note: Logistic random-effects regression
* = p < 0.05; ** = p < 0.01; *** = p < 0.001.
Table 3 Relationship Between Trust and Internal Whistleblowing: Organizational-Level
Trustworthy senior managers
* = p < 0.05; ** = p < 0.01; *** = p < 0.001.
Appendix Survey scales and items
Description of each scale, and explanation of item choice
Perceptions of trustworthy senior managers (α = .95)
Measures qualities that can affect the development of cognition-based
trust (CBT) and affect-based trust (ABT) of senior managers or senior
executive service (SES).
In my agency, the SES are of a high quality.
This item is quite similar to Mayer and Davis's (1999) "top management is
well qualified". It suggests confidence in the overall competence of the
SES, which is relevant for the development of CBT.
In my agency, SES ensure that work effort contributes to the
strategic direction of the agency and the APS .
The 3 items on leader visibility, and strategic management and change
management skills suggest confidence in the skills including specialized
In my agency, the most senior leaders are sufficiently visible
(e.g. can be seen in action).
skills of the SES, which are relevant for the development of CBT. They are
quite similar to Mayer and Davis's (1999) "confidence in top management's
In my agency, SES effectively lead and manage organisational
skills" and its "specialized capabilities".
SES in my agency lead by example in ethical behaviour.
This item measures confidence in the integrity of the SES, which is relevant
for the development of CBT.
In my agency, SES engage with staff on how to respond to
Engaging with staff on this matter implies sharing control. Sharing control
and communication affect the development of trust (Whitener, Brodt,
In my agency, communication between SES and other
employees is effective.
Korgaard, and Werner 1998)
In my agency, SES give their time to identify and develop
This item measures the SES's competency (in that they recognize the
importance of such a practice), and concerns about employee needs (in that
they care enough to implement such a practice).
Perceptions of trustworthy supervisors (α = .92)
Measures characteristics that shape the development of CBT and ABT of
I have a good immediate supervisor.
This item on a "good" supervisor can relate to the supervisor's competence,
as well as their interest in employee wellbeing, which affects the
development of CBT and ABT.
My supervisor appears to manage underperformance well in my
This item suggests confidence in the supervisor's skills and capabilities in
performance management, which affects the development of CBT.
My supervisor treats people with respect.
The 2 items on respectful treatment and acceptable behavior suggest
My supervisor behaves in an accepting manner towards people
from diverse backgrounds.
confidence in the supervisor's concern for employee welfare and fairness,
which is important for the development of ABT.
My supervisor is committed to workplace safety.
The 3 items on commitment to workplace safety, and effective interaction
with people from diverse backgrounds and feedback to employees suggest
My supervisor works effectively with people from diverse
confidence in both the supervisor's competence in that they recognize the
importance of such practices, and concern for employee interests in these
My supervisor provides me with regular and constructive
Perceptions of trustworthy co-workers (α = .90)
Measures characteristics that influence the development of CBT and ABT
The people in my workgroup are honest, open and transparent
in their dealings.
This item measures confidence in the integrity of co-workers, which affects
the development of CBT.
The people in my workgroup treat each other with respect.
The 2 items on respectful and acceptable behavior suggest confidence in the
The people in my workgroup behave in an accepting manner
towards people from diverse backgrounds.
co-workers' concern for each other's welfare, which shapes ABT.
The people in my workgroup are committed to workplace
The 2 items on commitment to workplace safety and group cooperation
suggest the co-workers are sufficiently competent to recognize the
The people in my workgroup cooperate to get the job done.
importance of such matters for the group (CBT), as well as their concern for
the welfare of all in the workgroup (ABT).
(Affective) organizational commitment (α = .88)
Measures employees' affective commitment or psychological attachment
to the organization.
I feel a strong personal attachment to my agency
The 3 items share some similarities to Allen and Meyer's (1990) items on
I am proud to work in my agency
"emotional attachment" and "a strong sense of belonging". These items
When someone praises the accomplishments of my agency, it
feels like a personal compliment to me
have also been used previously to measure affective commitment (Taylor
Cronbach’s alpha value = α.
The above scales use a 5-point Likert scale, with “1” for “strongly disagree”, to “5” for “strongly agree”.
CFA results: Chi-square χ2 (208) = 7,107.63; p < 0.05. Root Mean Square Error of Approximation (RMSEA) = 0.06; Standardized Root Mean
Square Residual (SRMR) = 0.04; Tucker Lewis Index (TLI) = 0.96; Comparative Fit Index (CFI) = 0.97; Goodness of Fit Index (GFI) = 0.94.
Standardized factor loadings range from 0.69 to 0.92. The average variance explained (AVE) for each variable range from 0.68 to 0.73, and the
square root of the AVE is greater than the correlation between the latent variables.