An Exploratory Study of Possible Correlates of Individual Whistleblowing Propensity Among Sworn Staff in a City Jail

Published date01 June 2021
Date01 June 2021
Subject MatterArticles
/tmp/tmp-1794eEifQTnRLe/input 919478CJPXXX10.1177/0887403420919478Criminal Justice Policy ReviewWells et al.
Criminal Justice Policy Review
2021, Vol. 32(4) 374 –402
An Exploratory Study of
© The Author(s) 2020
Article reuse guidelines:
Possible Correlates of
DOI: 10.1177/0887403420919478
Individual Whistleblowing
Propensity Among Sworn
Staff in a City Jail
James B. Wells1 , Kevin I. Minor1,
Eric G. Lambert2 , and Anna Reeves1
Staff are essential to running safe and humane correctional institutions. To this end,
staff sometimes need to report coworker misconduct. Doing so requires a propensity
to engage in whistleblowing, a topic that has received very little attention in the
criminal justice literature. Using results from the Work Experiences Questionnaire
(WEQ), an instrument designed to measure various features of correctional work
environments, we found several exploratory variables to be significantly associated
with individual whistleblowing propensity. Specifically, male staff, White staff, and
staff with college degrees had higher propensity scores. Increases in job satisfaction
and organizational whistleblowing propensity were also related to greater willingness
to report wrongdoing, whereas affective organizational commitment had a negative
effect. To the extent replicated, such findings can guide policy and practice concerning
the reporting of correctional staff wrongdoing.
jail staff, whistleblowing, wrongdoing, work environment
Working in a corrections facility is a unique and demanding experience. Staff have
significant effects on facility operations, and the work environment significantly
1Eastern Kentucky University, Richmond, USA
2University of Nevada, Reno, USA
Corresponding Author:
James B. Wells, School of Justice Studies, Eastern Kentucky University, 521 Lancaster Avenue, Stratton
467, Richmond, KY 40475, USA.

Wells et al.
affects staff (Armstrong & Griffin, 2004). Studies have reported that positive work
environment variables (e.g., quality supervision, administrative support, input into
decision making, job variety) are linked with sought-after outcomes, such as increased
job involvement, job satisfaction, organizational commitment, job performance, life
satisfaction, organizational innovation, compliance with organizational rules, support
for rehabilitation of inmates, and organizational citizenship behaviors (Camp, 1994;
Culliver et al., 1991; Fox, 1982; Lambert, 2004; Lambert et al., 2005b, 2008a, 2013;
Robinson et al., 1992). Likewise, negative work environment variables (e.g., role con-
flict, work–family conflict, role overload) can result in detrimental outcomes, such as
increased job stress, absenteeism, substance abuse, turnover intent, turnover, burnout,
medical problems, and even premature death (Byrd et al., 2000; Cheek, 1984; Cheek
& Miller, 1983; Lambert et al., 2005a; Lambert & Paoline, 2010; Minor et al., 2011;
Mitchell et al., 2000; Slate & Vogel, 1997; Wells et al., 2009, 2016; Whitehead, 1989;
Woodruff, 1993). Despite the abundance of research on positive and negative work
environment variables, we located no studies of correctional staff willingness to report
coworker wrongdoing, otherwise known as “whistleblowing.”
Corrections staff exercise much discretion in their jobs, and as much of the activity
in prisons and jails takes place far from the public eye, there are ample incentives and
opportunities for wrongdoing (McCarthy, 1984). Examples include abusing or neglect-
ing inmates, disregarding their safety, engaging in sexual misconduct, misusing
resources, and trafficking contraband. The parties most likely to become aware of staff
wrongdoing include inmates, who are stereotyped as manipulative and untrustworthy,
and correctional coworkers who commonly operate in an organizational culture non-
conducive to informing about the misconduct of one another. This renders the correc-
tions work environment ripe with potential for perpetual cycles of undetected and
unaddressed staff wrongdoing. Coworker whistleblowing can be one of the few viable
ways of curbing such a cycle.
Amid frequent reports about correctional staff misconduct (e.g., Bohatch, 2018;
Crane-Newman, 2018), there is clear need for research on staff whistleblowing. There
has been little literature in this area. For example, Dryburgh (2009) discussed the
impact of whistleblowing by correctional officers on organizational climate and policy
at the Corcoran California State Prison. Specifically, Dryburgh pointed to the impor-
tance of whistleblowing in corrections and indicated that individual and organizational
workplace variables played a role in this whistleblowing case. As clearly indicated by
Dryburgh, there is a need for research concerning how different variables are associ-
ated with whistleblowing propensity (i.e., willingness) among correctional staff. The
correctional work environment consists of multiple dimensions, many of which have
not been well studied, and it is especially important to understand variables related to
employee willingness to report wrongdoing. The current exploratory study addresses
this question in a detention facility setting. Jails have been understudied in research on
correctional staff but are well represented as arenas of alleged staff misconduct (e.g.,
Boston, 2006; Lau, 2017). Thus, this exploratory study examined possible correlates
of individual whistleblowing propensity among jail staff.

Criminal Justice Policy Review 32(4)
Literature Review
Most whistleblowing research comes from business, industry, human resources, medi-
cine, and education; there are few studies on criminal justice. One reason could be that
criminal justice organizations, similar to those in the military, fire, and foreign service
are relatively closed, self-governing systems, that tend to develop an esprit de corps,
loyalty, and a desire to protect the team; breaking silence is infrequent because it chal-
lenges long-standing traditions and threatens the “brotherhood” (Beigel, 1977; Chin &
Wells, 1998; Huberts et al., 2003; Mosher, 1982; Scolnick, 2002). Ironically, Johnson
(2005) argues that because whistleblowing is uncommon in police organizations, it is
all the more necessary.
Whistleblowing is a complex phenomenon shaped by the interplay of individual,
organizational, and situational variables (Brown et al., 2014; Miceli et al., 1987; Near
& Miceli, 2016; Rosecrance, 1988). According to the most widely used research defi-
nition (King, 1997), 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 & Miceli, 1985, p. 4).
Much whistleblowing research has been conducted under the auspices of prosocial
organizational behavior (POB). There is no one single definition of POB (Hazzi &
Maldaon, 2012), but Brief and Motowidlo (1986) provide a practical and comprehen-
sive definition as a
behavior which is a) performed by a member of an organization, b) directed toward an
individual, group or organization with whom he or she interacts while carrying out his or
her organizational role, and c) performed with the intention of promoting the welfare of
the individual, group or organization toward which it is directed. (p. 711)
Antecedents of prosocial behavior are organized around two general themes: indi-
vidual and contextual (Brief & Motowidlo, 1986). Individual antecedents include per-
sonal characteristics such as attitudes, values, as well as demographics. Contextual
antecedents pertain to those of the organizational context and work environment.
Near and Miceli (1985) proposed one of the most cited POB models of whistle-
blowing. The model proposes that whenever wrongdoing, defined as “illegal, immoral,
or illegitimate practices (activities or omissions)” (p. 4) occurs, organizational mem-
bers experience different decision-making or affective reactions (Miceli et al., 2008).
According to Watts and Buckley (2015), this framework has guided research for the
last three decades (Barnett, 1992; Dozier & Miceli, 1985; Liyanarachchi & Newdick,
2009; Mesmer-Magnus & Viswesvaran, 2005; Miceli et al., 2008; Miceli & Near,
1985, 1988; Near & Miceli, 1996).
The POB model suggests many variables and processes may determine the likeli-
hood of whistleblowing. These variables can be roughly categorized as “personal” and
“situational” (Miceli et al., 2008, p. 44). Personal characteristics include those pertain-
ing to demographics (e.g., race, gender), and personality or disposition (e.g., positive

Wells et al.
affectivity, negative affectivity, self-efficacy, job satisfaction). Situational variables
include those that pertain to the characteristics of the organization, its climate, culture,
and work environment (e.g., fairness, trust, interactional justice).
Whereas the POB model suggests multiple variables may affect whistleblowing,
many hypotheses of actual working environments remain untested. This is due to most
whistleblowing studies being restricted to demographically homogeneous samples,
thus limiting tests of personal variables, and to frequent use of artificial methodolo-
gies, such as simulations, scenarios, and tests (Brown et al., 2014;...

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