When the Whistle Didn't Blow: The Politics of Organizational Dissent at the Hanford Nuclear Site
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Beginning in the early 1970s, members of Congress and state legislatures enacted laws to protect workers who raise health, safety or environmental concerns. A right to voice concerns - either within or outside the organization - is particularly compelling in industries conducting activities that may harm the health and safety of workers, the environment, and perhaps even entire communities, ecosystems, and the economy. Despite legal protections, media accounts and government investigations often reveal that workers had knowledge of procedures or practices that were later identified as contributing factors to catastrophic accidents. But they were afraid to speak up. One might ask, why, given a legal right to raise a concern without retaliation, would workers remain silent? This study seeks to answer that question by examining the political, regulatory and organizational context that either encourages or discourages workers from raising concerns, and how those circumstances vary across organizations. The findings of this study suggest that whistleblower protection laws are one of many forces that come to bear on organizations that in turn, shape individual decision-making and action. Individuals perceive law as a thick mix of policies, directives, meanings, incentives, risks, and potential punishments - all filtered through the lens of their organizations. This study identifies three layers of influence including 1) the social, political and media attention in the organization's environment; 2) court decisions and oversight strategies employed by regulatory agencies; 3) and historical and cultural norms within the organization. This study suggests that organizations play a fundamental role in institutionalizing perceptions about legal rights. It adds to an understanding of the constitutive power of organizations in shaping the meaning and impact of law. The evidence presented sheds new light on regulatory oversight and enforcement strategies that seek to affect this meaning-making process. Finally, this study concludes that formal legal rights to raise concerns are either dimmed or made real at the organizational level, where social, political and legal forces converge to convey the value of dissent.
- Political science