This week we will consider ethical conflicts through the lens of whistleblowing. The term whistleblower goes back hundreds of years, and may have originally referred to British police officers, or Bobbies, who were known to blow a whistle to alert the public to a crime in progress or a potential danger. Today, a whistleblower is anyone with insider information of wrongdoing who shares that information with someone outside the organization. With that in mind, consider the following case study.
Frank Camps was a principal design engineer for the Ford Pinto, an inexpensive compact car that was popular in the 1970s, but today is widely considered to be one of the worst, most dangerous automobiles ever made by a major car maker. Under pressure from management, he participated in coaxing the Pinto windshield through government tests by reporting only the rare successful tests and by using a Band-Aid fix design that resulted in increased hazard to the gas tank. In 1973, undergoing a crisis of conscience in response to reports of exploding gas tanks, he wrote memos to top management stating his view that Ford was violating federal safety standards. However, it took six years before his recommendations for redesign were finally incorporated into the 1979 model. By that time, nearly 1 million Pintos with unsafe windshields and gas tanks were put on the road. Shortly after writing his memos, he was given lowered performance evaluations, then demoted several times. He resigned in 1978 when it became clear his prospects for advancement at Ford were nil. He filed a lawsuit based in part on age discrimination, in part on trying to draw further attention to the dangers.
Considering all of the circumstances, how would you evaluate Frank Camps’ actions from an ethical point of view? Was he correct to try to stay inside the system for several years, as he did, or should he have blown the whistle much earlier and taken his concerns to the government or the media? In other words, should he be credited for speaking up internally, or blamed for not speaking up more loudly and quickly?
Try to put yourself in Camps’ shoes? Would you have done anything differently than Camps? Would you have blown the whistle?