Human Rights Violations at the Workplace: Uncovering and Documenting – Günter Wallraff’s Activist Whistleblowing Method

  • Kristian Alm
  • Jacob Dahl RendtorffEmail author
Living reference work entry


The aim of this chapter is to provide a theory of activist whistleblowing for justice and dignity as the framework for detecting injustice and human rights abuses in business and organizations. This is important for trust and business legitimacy. We suggest that whistleblowing is an important field of human rights in business and essential for creating public awareness of human rights abuses and democratic engagement in promoting human rights in business. In order to develop such a theory, we use the activist work and controversial life of the German journalist and writer Günter Wallraff based on a confrontation with the dominant concepts of whistleblowing in relation to business and human rights.


Business and human rights Whistleblowing Journalism Business ethics Günter Wallraff Undercover investigation Freedom of expression Employee rights Human rights abuses Organizational wrongdoing 


An important topic of business ethics is the concern for human rights and democracy in organizations. Businesses have responsibility for the welfare and well-being of their employees. At the heart of corporate social responsibility and values-driven management, we find issues of internal responsibility in business organizations such as employee motivation and routines to avoid corruption (Midttun 2013). At the one hand, businesses should ensure employee loyalty towards the management and trust in the workplace. On the other hand, there is also an obligation to ensure basic human rights, specifically such as employees’ freedom of expression and whistleblowing, but also rights that protect the welfare of employees. However, such human rights are a real constraint for many companies and businesses, first because such rights often contradict their historically strong commercial rationale. Human rights challenge them to use financial resources to protect and strengthen the well-being and welfare of their employees. This is often considered as problematic expenses in a post-socialist and post-social-democratic era where pure commercial interests, values, and theories are influencing their strategies more profoundly and aggressively than before. The persons as Günter Wallraff, who promote human rights in general, and the rights supporting whistleblowing more specifically, will consequently risk to be confronted with skepticism and aggression from large parts of the business community.

Legitimacy and Human Rights in Business Organizations

This obligation of business to promote human rights in general and the rights supporting whistleblowing more specifically, even if it is expensive for business, is indeed influenced by one of its most important contexts, particular laws of many democracies throughout the world. This is an obligation internal and external to business. If we investigate the legal issue of whistleblowing, linked to constitutional rights, laws, and conventions in countries such as the UK, France, Germany, and the USA, we can see that the issue is very complex (Fasterling and Lewis 2014). Different factors of laws are interwoven into a large and bewildering structure, factors that to a different degree contribute to “an effectively promoting of public-interest whistleblowing.”

Do we speak about a simple leak of information or can we define the revealing of secret organizational issues as an act of whistleblowing? What is the role of whistleblowing in relation to business legitimacy? Are we talking about how the constitution protects whistleblowers through a general right of freedom of speech or about how more limited parts of the legal system protect them? In Germany and the UK, mere leaking information is not protected by constitutional rights, while in contrast whistleblowing is subject to the right of freedom of expression. However, in the USA, whistleblowing in the private sector is not very strongly protected by the constitution (Hoffman and McNulty 2011), but participants in organizations are supported by incentives to report certain violations (Hoffman and McNulty 2011), “yet only within the limited scope of existing statutory provisions.” In contrast to this, we may emphasize that the principle of freedom of speech in the German constitution is applicable in both private and public sector and therefore includes protection of whistleblowers in both parts of society. In France and Germany, the “scarcity” of whistleblower laws are compensated “by a general high level of employment protection” (Fasterling and Lewis 2014).

Even if laws in those western democracies differ when it comes to how strong they protect whistleblowing, most constitutions in Europe and the USA can be said to protect the rights of whistleblower since they protect the freedom of expression. However, some of those laws could be improved, as Fasterling and Lewis correctly argue, because they only say general things about freedom of expression, and do not address particular issues of people’s right to freedom of expression as employees in private or public organizations. In particular, there is legally not a sufficient clear understanding of under which condition we only deal with illegal leak of sensitive information that justifies certain precautions from management or reprisals towards a whistleblowing that is legally and ethically justified.

Consequently, employees in such democracies often have, not only their right, but also the possibility and duty to inform management or the public about negative issues in the company that are threatening the welfare and well-being of the organization by violating basic human rights at the workplace. This obligation is often registered in national labor laws and in European standards or directives. However, despite the different types of international and national legal protection (Hoffman and McNulty 2011), employee’s freedom of expression is often censored by strong internal commercial and ideological forces to the degree that it is more or less impossible to inform or blow the whistle from the inside of the organization, as is focused in recent research (Trygstad and Ødegård 2016). As a necessary consequence, there is a risk that not only national laws of different democracies but also fundamental human rights violations at the workplace will expand because they stay unknown both to the internal and external audience. The picture of the types of violations that are left to silence might be complex.

The basic rights of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948, partly in response to the barbarism of the Second World War, that might be violated extensively are the following: offending the security of the person (Article 3), being held in servitude (Article 4), inhuman or degrading treatment (Article 5), attacks upon honor and reputation (Article 12), radical limitation of freedom of conscience (Article 18) and freedom of expression (Article 19), and offending the right to just and favorable conditions of work (Article 23). Therefore the point in question is: What is the relationship between the universal level of human right and the national level of labor laws? But this is an extremely complicated question to answer. We can consider in line with recent debate (Trygstad and Ødegård 2016) employees’ freedom of speech as a fundamental right, because the success of this right is often necessary to reveal, document, and inform about the violation at the workplace of the other basic rights mentioned.

In this article however, we concentrate on whistleblowing in business ethics, in relation to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as we consider whistleblowing a fundamental human right, following from the rights of freedom of expression in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – meaning a right for all human beings of all nations, according to this universal vision about freedom of speech. In this context, it is important to focus on the ethical dimensions of human rights, as founded on the basic ethical principles of autonomy, dignity, integrity, and vulnerability (Rendtorff 1998, 2002; Rendtorff and Kemp 2009). The ethical principles are the basic for human freedom and moral autonomy, which justify the fundamental human rights in the framework of cosmopolitan business ethics (Rendtorff 2017). We consider whistleblowing as a concrete expression of this fundamental right.

Our research topic is this: We will explore how the German journalist and writer Günter Wallraff’s work proposes a visionary contribution to whistleblowing in organizations in a post-Second World War context contributing to the development of a controversial methodology for uncovering and documenting the truth about basic human rights violations at the workplace. The method presupposes a distinction between legitimate allegations telling the truth about certain dimensions of a reality and illegitimate allegations that do not tell the truth. In contrast to most whistleblowers who are employees and face terrible unethical and unjust situations in their organizations, Wallraff’s radical method of whistleblowing presents an attempt to an active effort of whistleblowing coming from the outside of the organization penetrating internally with a hidden identity in order to reveal a complex set of truths about violations of human rights at the workplace (Alm and Rendtorff 2016). In this perspective, Wallraff’s approach to whistleblowing aims at uncovering of organizational evil and degrading treatment of human beings in business (Rendtorff 2014). Accordingly, this method can also be used by NGOs and human rights activists to uncover human rights violations in organizations.

Workplace Activism and the Search for Business Legitimacy

In the following, we present examples of Wallraff’s radical method of uncovering and documenting a complexity of human rights violations at the workplace in order to understand challenges to business legitimacy. Our methods of analysis are based on theoretical and practical approaches to business ethics (Rendtorff and Mattsson 2006; Rendtorff 2009a, b). We also use insights from philosophy of management as focus of interpretation (Rendtorff 2010, 2013a, b, c, d). And our analysis can be considered as a critical theory and case study of Wallraff’s activist method (Rendtorff 2015, 2016). We consider the activist method as inspired by undercover journalism, role-playing, and postwar experiences from his own life and as a challenge to the traditional academic concepts of whistleblowing. The concept of whistleblowing in the academic literature is according to Vandekerckhove characterized by a deactivation (2006, p. 11). Vandekerckhove concludes his book by saying that “From an exponent of the protest against labour discipline it seems to have turned into a disciplinary apparatus itself” (p. 5). The current trend in whistleblowing policies in nations as the USA, Australia, New Zealand, the UK, South Africa, Japan, and Belgium entails the risk of organizational domination over the individual and hence an institutionalizing of the individual (p. 5). “In that sense, the advocacy of whistleblowing has experienced a backlash” (p. 5).

With the presentation of Wallraff’s method, and its origins in the ideological climate of the 1970s, so to speak before post-socialist and post-social-democratic era, we want to argue for a more activist and open-ended understanding of whistleblowing as having the potential to uncovering and documenting a complexity of human rights violations at the workplace in particular with regard to misery and exploitation of the work environment in different workplaces. Seen in the historical context of the 1970s, our interpretation of Wallraff’s activist method could be interpreted as a reconstruction of the origins of the concept of whistleblowing, in line with Vandekerckhove’s historical perspective on the 1970s: “whistleblowing in an organizational context originated as an activist and hence politico-ethical concept” (p. 11).

Whistleblowers can be more activist and authentic coming from the outside than those employees we normally encounter inside organizations that often are caught in the conformity of spirals of silence (Noelle-Neumann 1974). This common silence can be understood as a historical heritage of the main force that for decades has been in conflict with the need to blow the whistle, the claim to absolute loyalty towards the organization (Vandekerckhove 2006, pp. 1, 7–8, 11).

Wallraff’s approach can thus be seen as a contribution to the institutionalization of undercover journalism as an activist method of whistleblowing in a society with severe social problems, power, and domination (Kroeger 2012). Kroeger is converging to such an understanding of whistleblowing in her analysis of the American tradition of undercover reporting when she writes: “… under-cover reporting has a built-in ability to expose wrongs and wrongdoers …It can illuminate the unknown, it can capture and sustain attention, it can shock or amaze” (Kroeger 2012, p. 15).

Wallraff’s method represents a concept that combines whistleblowing with strong criticism of power on behalf of the powerlessness, in order to change their situation. Detection of the complexity of human rights violations at the workplace that offend powerless persons is in the center of his concept of whistleblowing. Wallraff emphasizes consequently that whistleblowing through undercover journalism contributes to give public voice to the voiceless. Accordingly, whistleblowing can be considered as a reformulation of the moral challenges to journalism and whistleblowing as potential ways of giving speech to the voiceless. However, this kind of whistleblowing is also an offer to NGOs and human rights activists to actively engage in undercover activities to reveal human rights violations in organizations. Wallraff considers undercover journalists as gatekeepers of democracy and spokespeople for a large number of powerless that have experienced a violation of their basic human rights at the workplace. The combination between whistleblowing and undercover journalism reformulates employee’s freedom of expression as publically uncovering and documenting a complexity of violations of human rights at the workplace (Seyerstedt 1999).

As we will show later, Wallraff’s radical method of whistleblowing had a tremendous influence in the public life of Germany in the 1980s. The general public interest for his project might have contributed to significant changes in the German laws on freedom of speech. This is not least the fact when it comes to Lex Wallraff, as we will comment on. According to recent interpretation of German labor law, there is in general a large space for freedom of expression in corporations. Rieble and Wiebauer (2010) link this fact to a discussion of a complex presentation of the German legal situation in relation to whistleblowing, exchange of opinions, discussions, and leak of information in companies. Today, the companies cannot expect that employees and citizens at any case should expect order and peace in the company. Both employer and employees have in German labor law freedom of expression. Nevertheless, we also see limitations of the freedom of expression in German labor law, for example, when the minority of the board is restricted in its freedom of expression with regard to critical judgments of the corporation (Rieble and Wiebauer 2010). However, criticism is also allowed within the board, for example, between representatives of the employee’s unions and the employers, but it is an open question when such an exchange of opinions becomes unacceptable.

It is difficult to assign a limit of what is legally permitted according to the law, for example, when critical employees compare companies to concentration camps (Rieble and Wiebauer 2010). Accordingly, there is a large space of freedom for critical opinions, even though this space cannot be considered as absolute.

W. Vandekerckhove argues in his book Whistleblowing and Organizational Social Responsibility, that whistleblowing should be legitimized as a fundamental human right (Vandekerckhove 2006). He underscores first of all Article 19 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights on freedom of opinion and expression. Vandekerckhove argues that the declaration was originally a response to the atrocities of the Second World War and was addressed to national governments that by writing the declaration into their constitution accepted it as their duty to respect, protect, and even realize human rights as inalienable rights individuals can “claim on their governments.” The historic development of globalization has implied a new understanding of human rights as a similar duty for international corporations, having governments as their historical predecessors. The old social contract between the state having responsibility for the law of the nation and the private sector working for profit maximization, together creating economic wealth for the citizens, is outdated. Incidences of scandals involving private sector employees and senior management acting strictly for profit maximization “within a judicial vacuum or abroad in a state of ethical confusion,” the mobility of multinational companies using their unrestricted freedom to choose the legal system they prefer, and their enormous power, imply that private sector has been challenged to take seriously the duty to respect and promote human rights. This duty has symptomatically become an important issue high up on the agenda of many multinationals the last couple of decades. Vandekerckhove argues that the whistleblowing policy of international corporations has to be understood as part of this historic picture of a new social contract where private sector is sharing the responsibility with national governments to respect, promote, and realize human rights.

Wallraff challenges this picture of the macro- and meso-level of society having an exclusive responsibility of promoting whistleblowing as a fundamental human right, by introducing the importance of the activist approach at the micro-level. Wallraff’s activist project implies that he considers it also as the duty of an individual – namely, himself and others – to respect, promote, and realize freedom of expression, by uncovering and documenting a complex set of human rights violations in public as well as private organizations, when collective entities fail to do so. Even if he is weak compared to governments and organizations, he places this duty upon his shoulders in order to promote a fundamental human right. By this activist approach, he challenges not only the public and private sector of his time for lack of whistleblowing as a human right project. He also challenges influential parts of the discourse of the whistleblowing of research today for their lack of understanding whistleblowing as an individual duty to respect, promote, and realize human rights.

Whistleblowing as a Contemporary Field of Business Ethics and Human Rights

Accordingly, whistleblowing as individuals strategically using freedom of speech to uncover and document human rights violations in public and private organizations is still a hot topic. Moreover, many NGOs and human rights activist can highly benefit of whistleblowing as a method of revealing fundamental human rights violations – based on individuals using the national implementation of the human rights declaration as their legitimizing basis. In contemporary society, the phenomenon is perhaps higher at the international agenda compared to Wallraff’s project in the 1970s and 1980s. Contemporary international icons working post Wallraff are quite a few. We can just mention WikiLeaks and the leak of confidential information from governments, undertaken by Julien Assange and his WikiLeaks team. Alternatively, the infamous scandal of Edward Snowden who made classified information about the US government surveillance of private citizens public and had to flee his country and went to Russia. Alternatively, we can mention Bradley (Now Chelsea) Manning who also made public classified government information and was put to prison in the USA with a severe sentence by the courts. These activists have been important for turning the human rights movements towards whistleblowing as essential to detecting human rights violations at the workplace, based on the universal right of freedom of speech.

In private business, whistleblowing is also important for justice and the compliance for human rights in organizations. Often such cases refer to situations where individuals feel moral responsibility to “blow the whistle” in the public about cases of wrongdoing and fraud in their organizations (Rendtorff 2009b). Whistleblowers often need close links to NGOs and human rights activists to succeed. Indeed, from that perspective, whistleblowing emerges as a individually created weapon against corruption, mismanagement, and general non-compliance with legal obligations by a broader public (Thüsing and Forst 2016). In the USA, famous cases where whistleblowing was important include the Enron and WorldCom scandals with the breakdown of Arthur Andersen accounting firm, which lead to the Sarbanes-Oxley legislation. Brinkmann (2008) underscores that the disclosure of Enron based on the whistleblowing of Sherron Watkins was a shock for the US public life. Enron was among the best in class when it comes to the integrating of business ethics procedures.

As Time’s person of the year together with the whistleblowers Coleen Rowley of the FBI and Cynthia Cooper of WorldCom, Watkins revealed that Enron as the advisor of the US Government, backed by the world’s biggest banks, rated by top analysts, and a paragon of CSR and ethics with all the business ethics tools in place, was a company completely different from the perfect icon citizens of the USA had entrusted. We suggest that NGOs and human rights activist turn towards whistleblowing as a method for making human rights violations public in order to provoke debates about human rights and fostering social change.

Whistleblowing in the Theory and Practice of Law and Ethics

The problem of whistleblowing occurs partly from the conflict between employees’ loyalty to the company and their obligations to society or others outside the company (Rendtorff and Pedersen 2004; Rendtorff 2009b). It is in the interest of society to protect employees who by virtue of their affiliation with the company have obtained information on the company’s violation of basic human rights. The employee believes the public has a right to know about these violations because of their unethical or abusive nature and because the company is part of society. The employee has an obligation to come out with the information since the public has a legitimate interest in the information.

Therefore, whistleblowers are often in a difficult situation. They can be bound by all forms of contractual ties to the company, which means that they can be prosecuted if they break their confidentiality. It is true that the employee’s contract with the company includes a certain loyalty and commitment, but not as something unlimited, and the company has no right to put strong political and social constraints on their staff, not least because freedom of speech is guaranteed as a universal human right for citizens in many modern democracies, but to a different degree, as we have underscored with Fasterling and Lewis (2014). Their study focus on the challenge that different legal systems of nations and the international society protect whistleblowers as insiders in an organization to a different degree and should therefore be improved, specifically when it comes to the problem of retaliation. In business ethics, as a parallel, the discussion of whistleblowing is mostly about how to protect the employee and how to do justice to employees in the process of whistleblowing. We find a normative literature about the necessary protection of whistleblowers, and we encounter proposals for ensuring good regulation of the right to be a whistleblower in different countries (Thüsing and Forst 2016). However, this literature is mostly based on the assumption that whistleblowing is taken care of by people inside organizations who observe human rights violations and cannot do anything else than blow the whistle or keep silent, due to the fear of different forms of retaliation.

Theoretical Basis for Activist Whistleblowing: Beyond Restrictive Criteria

The debate about whistleblowing among business ethicists has focused on defining criteria for ethically acceptable whistleblowing. Different business ethicists have tried to define when it is acceptable or a duty to blow the whistle (Hoffman and McNulty 2011, p. 45). This is because whistleblowers often have been criticized as being disloyal serving their own interests in contrast to the interests of their organization. Therefore, it is necessary to define the justification of whistleblowing with the framework of how business ethics – directly or indirectly – relates the question of whistleblowing to the problem of violating of basic human rights.

As Hoffman and McNulty remind us, whistleblowing originally refers to blowing the whistle on the sports playground in order to stop or judge something or when a police officer detects criminal behavior (Hoffman and McNulty 2011, p. 46). The metaphor signifies either a judgment or a legal action. Here, Hoffman and McNulty refer to the definition of whistleblowing by Marcia Miceli and Janet Near “the disclosure by organization members (former or current) of illegal, immoral, or illegitimate practices under the control of their employees, to persons or organizations that may be able to effect action” (Hoffman and McNulty 2011, p. 46). This definition combines elements of the legal and ethical aspects of whistleblowing. However, it does not say much under which conditions whistleblowing is permitted or whether we should have an activist or passive, internal or external, or descriptive or prescriptive definition of whistleblowing as uncovering and documenting violations of basic human rights. Moreover, it does not underline whistleblowing as a fundamental type of human right – freedom of speech – and as such its legitimacy as a powerful means to uncover and document violations of human rights.

The US-business ethics Richard De George proposed rather restrictive criteria for whistleblowing. These criteria have, to no surprise, been subject to debate. They help to shape the development of criteria for whistleblowing in the business ethics literature. The starting point is that the whistleblower is somebody who has no power and therefore needs to go to the public to reveal problems in the organization. George has proposed some fundamental justification for whistleblowing with his criteria that say when whistleblowing is prohibited, permitted, or required (De George 1986; Hoffman and McNulty 2011, p. 47). These criteria that argue for a theory of morally permissible whistleblowing are the following:
  1. 1.

    The firm, through its products or policy, will do serious and considerable harm to the public, whether in person or of the user of its product, an innocent bystander, or the general public.

  2. 2.

    Once an employee identifies a serious threat to the user of a product or to the general public, he or she should report it to his immediate supervisor and make his or her moral concern known. Unless he or she does so, the act of whistleblowing is not clearly justifiable.

  3. 3.

    If one’s immediate supervisor does not effective about the concern or complaint, the employee should exhaust the internal procedures and possibilities within the firm. This usually will involve taking the matter up the managerial ladder and, if necessary – and possible – to the board of directors.

  4. 4.

    The whistleblower must have or have accessible documented evidence that would convince a reasonable, impartial observer that one’s view of the situation is correct and that the company’s product or practice poses a serious and likely danger to the public or to the user of the products.

  5. 5.

    The employee must have good reasons to believe that by going public, the necessary changes will be brought about. The chance of being successful must be worth the risk one takes and the danger to which one is exposed (De George 1986; Hoffman and McNulty 2011, p. 47).


As a critique of these principles, Hoffman and McNulty argue that this definition of whistleblowing is too restrictive since many of the recent cases, where whistleblowing was appropriate cannot be captured by De George’s definition. We can mention Enron (violating Article 3 and 5) and WorldCom (violating Article 19), Bernie Madoff (violating Article 3 and 5), and other cases where it was difficult to get good evidence and good reasons from the organization and where the violations of human rights could not immediately be identified. Moreover, it is not clear when it is morally required to blow the whistle following De George’s theory. In addition, it seems like it is difficult for De George to justify that the employee should blow the whistle when it represents a strong personal danger and has serious personal costs for the employee.

Therefore, Hoffman and McNulty propose an alternative theory of whistleblowing arguing for a more activist concept of whistleblowing, important for the consideration of whistleblowing as an activist methodology of uncovering and documenting violations of basic human rights. They argue for a prescriptive theory of whistleblowing defining ethical criteria for whistleblowing within business ethics. These conditions for whistleblowing rely on a theory of respect for the uniqueness of human dignity as the foundation of the right to whistleblowing in an organization. Hoffman and McNulty call it the universal dignity theory of whistleblowing, based on the philosophy of human dignity saying that all human beings have intrinsic worth or value, apparently in line with the articulation of such a universal dignity in the human rights. This theory is based on the following criteria:
  1. 1.

    Compelling evidence of nontrivial illegal or unethical actions done by an organization or its employees that are deemed to violate the dignity of one or more of its stakeholders.

  2. 2.

    A lack of knowledge within the organization of the wrongdoing or failure by the organization that take corrective measures.

  3. 3.

    One is conditionally exempted from the duty to blow the whistle if one has credible grounds for believing that by doing so one would be putting oneself or others at risk of serious retaliation (Hoffman and McNulty 2011, p. 51).


This activist concept of whistleblowing is more open since it takes into account the dignity of all stakeholders and is also somewhat more precise than the theory proposed by De George. The activist method is a very good possibility for NGOs and human rights activists to use to get deeply into the human rights violations of organizations. It addresses the concern for the individual human dignity of the whistleblower in cases of risk of serious retaliation. In an article with Mark S. Schwartz, Hoffman continues this effort to develop a more activist concept of whistleblowing (Hoffman and Schwartz 2015). The aim of the commentary is to argue that the concept of harm as suggested by De George in his theory of whistleblowing is limited. The concept of harm that motivates whistleblowing should be defined much more broadly within the perspective of violating what basic human rights are intended to protect: the intrinsic value of the human being.

Therefore, Hoffman and Schwartz continue the definition of the concept whistleblowing as based on the principle of respect for human dignity. The revised principles as defined by Hoffman and Schwartz revised criterion:
  1. 1.

    Misconduct has taken place or is expected to take place that violates the law or involve serious physical harm, serious psychological harm, serious financial harm, serious infringement of basic moral rights, or a serious injustice (HS1).

  2. 2.

    Reasonable evidence or belief of misconduct based on firsthand knowledge will be provided (HS2).

  3. 3.

    Misconduct must first be reported internally whenever feasible to one’s direct supervisor and, if no action is taken, all the way up to the board of directors or through the designed reporting channel if one exists (e.g., compliance or ethics officer) (HS3).

  4. 4.

    Unless one is a professional, an effective written anti-retaliation policy must exist at the firm (HS4).

  5. 5.

    Unless one is a professional, effective legal protection for employees must exist (HS5) (Hoffman and Schwartz 2015).


In our approach to whistleblowing, we follow this theoretical concept of whistleblowing as a key to understand Günter Wallraff’s activist method of whistleblowing as a methodology for uncovering violations of basic human rights at the workplace as linked to uncover and document the underlying offending of human dignity. With Hoffman and Schwartz, we move beyond the restrictive criteria of De George, and we consider the concept of protecting human dignity as the foundation of why radical activist whistleblowing is so consequently at the agenda of Wallraff through decades. At the same time, we move beyond Hoffman and Schwartz in relation to several important dimensions of the concept of whistleblowing in business ethics.

With Wallraff’s approach, we allow the external investigative journalist to penetrate the organization from the outside and become at the same time an external and internal whistleblower in the service not only for uncovering and documenting the truth about single violations of human rights at the workplace but first the continuously offending of human dignity in each situation. To which degree do we find this fundamental foundation of Wallraff as legitimate? Obviously it links to the pivotal concern for dignity as proposed by Hoffman and McNulty and formulated in the human rights of 1948. The foundation of radical activist whistleblowing is the concern for the human dignity (Criterion 1). Indeed, this approach aims at detecting lack of knowledge and action in relation to the wrongdoing in the organization (Criterion 2). However, radical activist whistleblowing may be critical to the idea of exemption of duty when there is risk of serious retaliation (Criterion 3). The moral duty of whistleblowing is central to the radical activist concept of whistleblowing, as proposed by Wallraff.

With regard to the problem of harm, the radical activist whistleblowing approach follows the criticism of Hoffman and Schwartz (HS1), and it agrees that the misconduct and violations of basic rights must be detected by firsthand reports (HS2). As such the method strengthens the possibilities for practicing whistleblowing as a way of telling the truth. To be in direct contact with the situation that represents the problem does increase the possibility to collect true information, compared to collecting information from a secondary source. However, the radical activist concept of whistleblowing moves very soon from internal reporting to external reporting (HS3), and the activist approach considers external reporting and anti-retaliation policies as essential to the duty of whistleblowing (HS4 and HS5). Also the external reporting to the public sphere strengthens the possibilities for practicing WB as a way of telling the truth, because the different points of views embedded into the rationality of the citizen’s increases the possibility to correct misconceptions and arrive closer to the truth. However, the radical activist concept goes beyond Hoffmann, Schwartz, and De George by considering fictitious identities in social roles as necessary presuppositions for collecting information for external reporting. In fact, this too increases the possibility to find the truth, because people are trusting the role you fictitiously play and consequently give you information they otherwise wouldn’t have given.

Therefore, the activist radical whistleblowing approach as suggested by Wallraff goes beyond the dominating concepts of whistleblowing, even though it also adopts elements of the theories of whistleblowing as proposed by De George and Hoffman and others. Now, we will go to the presentation of Wallraff’s radical method as a new concept of whistleblowing that moves beyond the dominant concepts of whistleblowing in business ethics by consequently using a fictitious identity to uncovering and documenting human rights violations at the workplace. Indeed, this new method of whistleblowing is offered as an important opportunity to NGOs and human rights activists to work actively to uncover human rights violations to the public.

Whistleblowing as Uncovering and Documenting Human Rights Violations at the Workplace: Examples, Background, and Motivation

We have so far interpreted Wallraff’s radical concept of whistleblowing as a reply to the contemporary debate on the definitions of the concept of whistleblowing in the context of developing a framework for how to uncover and document the truth about violations of basic human rights at the workplace. Indeed, recent radical whistleblowers like Snowden and Manning show us the limitation of De George’s and Hoffman’s approach to whistleblowing. In order to understand the different dimensions of the radical, activist concept of whistleblowing as an individual duty, we need to go deeper into Wallraff’s life and work. In Wallraff’s life and lived existence, whistleblowing for human rights in business becomes a mode of authentic existence and search for the meaning of life. A short definition of Wallraff’s radical whistleblower activist method can be reformulated based on Hoffman and McNulty’s use of Marcia Miceli and Janet Near’s definition:

The activist whistleblower method for uncovering and documenting basic human rights violations at the work place means that the whistleblower engages fully with his or her personal life by going undercover as a member of the organization. Whistleblowing is based on role-playing and an undercover activity where the whistleblower takes over the identity of organization members (former or current) and penetrates into the organization in order not only to detect complex violations of human rights at the work place, i.e. illegal, immoral, or illegitimate practices under the control of employees, persons or organizations that may violate human rights, but also the underlying offending of the dignity of all the persons involved.

As we see the radical change of the concept of whistleblowing as suggested by Wallraff is that we face an external intruder who “takes over” the identity of an employee of the organization in order to detect violation of human rights in the organization and present it to the public. NGOs and human rights activists have good opportunities to work as backups for such intruders and help to identify businesses where there is suspicion of violations of human rights in the workplace.


According to Wallraff, his method of undercover journalism has three elements. He defines his method as “participating, acting, and provocative observation” of how systems of society functions (Dialogue at BI Business School Oslo October 2016). He participated on a broad basis in systems of oppression playing fictitious roles at the bottom of the system showing how underprivileged persons experienced that representatives of the establishment violated their basic human rights. The broad participation intended to give him the best possible lookout to be able to observe how the system of powerful institutions of society violated the basic human rights of the weakest. This experiencing of oppression and thereby observing was apparent when playning fictotious roles in the coal industry, the psychiatric institution, the newspaper industry, the Catholic Church, the police, and representatives of the government and political parties, as we will show by interpreting some significant examples.


He acted strategically in these roles, in order to observe how this institutional system responded. He placed himself through strategic actions in many dangerous situations that informed him in detail about how human rights violations took place in detail at the workplace. Two different dimensions in this acting were typical for Wallraff.

As a whistleblower Wallraff acted as an undercover journalist in order to identify and show solidarity with the suppressed. The roles he chose was never part of the upper strata of society, but always part of the bottom of the organizations. He wanted to participate as an oppressed in different organizational contexts in order to experience how such people themselves experienced such a life. This led him into dangerous situations for his physical and mental health, such as the role as a Turkish guest worker in the coal industry and to the “prisoned” life as a psychiatric patient in psychiatric hospitals. The key to knowledge seems to be the self-understanding of experiencing danger and risk yourself by interating with the systems.

Wallraff has several times underscored that he played when he was active with the method and thus had fun. This has been called “Situationskomik” (Linder 1975, p. 105). Böll interprets Wallraff accordingly as an author who penetrates into a situation and submits to it, often by using a language of dark humor in order to tell about the tragedy going on (Linder 1975, pp. 9–10).

Wallraff considered it as funny to fool persons in power positions, to experience that they believed he was another person as the journalist he actually was. He used the distinction in Latin between the concept of homo ludens and homo faber in order to explain what he did. He told us that:

I do enjoy to play. Knowledge is often something we receive through playing. We have the Latin concept homo ludens and homo faber, the person who works, the person who is unable to laugh. That is dangerous. We know this from the pedagogy, children learn by playing. Moreover, we know from pedagogy that you remember much better things you were playing than what was harped. So my method is actually a childish, naïve method. (Interview Oslo October 2016)

Wallraff also explicitly talked about being a mockery and the fun he had in all the roles as a way of experiencing joy and pleasure, which made it possible for him to endure the burdens he met when he used the method to identify with the suppressed.


The provocative element has to do with abusing trust as a pure means to achieve his goal: to collect and publish controversial information revealing misery and guilt in order to initiate debates in public life and thereby promote progress in society. Wallraff misused the trust management showed him believing he was the person he said he was and therefore giving him controversial information unknown for public life. As trust-givers management expected him to keep the information internally in the organization (Alm and Brown 2016), but he went public with the information by blowing the whistle externally when he published his books.

The resistance against this provocative way of misusing management’s trust was strong and continued for a long time. His opponents dragged him to court several times, accusing him for breaking the laws of the society when going public with “private” information. Nevertheless, the public attitude changed gradually through the decades in favor of Wallraff. Lex Wallraff, the law legitimizing undercover journalism, was probably his greatest victory for uncovering and documenting human rights violations at the workplace. It was also the most important defeat of his opponents saying that it was legal to lie about your identity in order to collect information if the publishing of it was in the general interest of the citizens of society (Alm and Rendtorff 2016).

Ganz Unten

Wallraff’s most famous, controversial, and debated uncovering and documenting of human rights violations at the workplace was the book Ganz Unten (1985). As the basis for this work, he planned in detail and worked out a fictitious identity as a Turkish guest worker, Ali Levent, penetrating Germany’s illegal labor market (Pilger 2004). Most horrible is probably his uncovering of the hazardous working conditions in a Thyssen steel factory where guest workers worked for months in clouds of cancer inducing coal dust with long-term consequences for their physical health. He also uncovered that the workers in the industry were forced to work without any type of protection, that their working days lasted up to 12–14 hours a day and 7 days a week, and that the wages were at a very low level. Based on detailed notes, he revealed situations characterized of racism when the manager sympathizing with Nazism treated the workers more like animals than human beings. In the book, Wallraff also uncovered and documented how he was treated in a brutal and dehumanizing way as a human guinea pig in the pharmaceutical industry.

It does not seem correct to argue that Wallraff in this context uncovered and documented violations of one specific human right. On the contrary, he uncovered and documented rather that several basic rights were severely and repeatedly violated in a process were such violations appeared as routine; of relevance are Article 3, offending the security of the person; Article 5, inhuman and degrading treatment; and Article 23, offending favorable and just conditions of work. As such, he showed that the human dignity of a high number of Turkish guest workers was offended in the illegal German labor market.

Wallraff’s uncovering and documenting of such a severe situation in the illegal German labor market unknown to public life may contribute to explain why the whistleblowing of the book was his most successful. He sold more than 2 million copies in less than 5 months. “On publication day in 1985, people queued outside bookshops, and the ensuing national debate about working conditions and racism, specifically German attitudes to ‘guest workers’, was unprecedented” (Pilger 2004).

Wallraff’s uncovering and documenting resulted in a raid. The establishment was provoked to react. German prosecutors and tax officials penetrated into the offices of Thyssen. They were searching for evidence that the company was breaking the law regulating and protecting contract workers. “In the state of North Rhine Westphalia the setting of Wallraff’s expos the Social Democratic government moved to stamp out ‘lease’ labour, a kind of bond silavery. Throughout Germany more than 13,000 criminal investigations were instigated, and penalties were increased tenfold” (Pilger 2004).

Bild-Zeitung [Picture Journal]

A few years earlier, Wallraff had prepared the ground for the strong public interest in his authorship by publishing the so-called Bild-triologie, three books where he uncovered and documented the human rights violations in the journalistic methods of the most selling German boulevard newspaper Bild-Zeitung, owned by the Axel Springer company and often compared to the English newspaper The Sun. He published Der Aufmacher (1977), Zeugen der Anklage - Die Bild-Beschreibung wird fortgesetzt (1979), and Bild-Störung (1981).

He worked in Bild-Zeitung under the cover name Hans Esser and used his own experiences of contributing to the unethical journalistic methods as empirical basis for publishing these books drawing the attention to three topics. A. The competition among the male journalists to produce the most spectacular and sensational lies about ordinary German citizens and harassing their interview objects, often in the form of sexual harassment of women. This was the most effective way of pleasing the company’s commercial needs of selling large volumes of newspapers. B. Wallraff wrote in detail how he was lying in order to be in front among his male peers as the most popular journalist internally and how this influenced his integrity, apparently referring to this “deconstruction of integrity” as what was going on among all the editors and journalists. After a short time, he got used to lie and harass and participated wholeheartedly in the competition. C. Wallraff also uncovered the consequences for ordinary citizens of experiencing the destructive public power of the newspaper as a pillory; people ended sometimes in despair when lied and harassed.

The deconstruction of the journalist’s professional integrity by contributing to lie and harassment could be linked to Articles 5 and 23 as objects of violations. However, Wallraff seems first to uncover and document that Article 12 is violated, and in a systematic way; the institutionalized way of lying and harassing ordinary citizen’s life, not least women, could be interpreted as attacks upon the honor and reputation of ordinary citizens and as such on their dignity as human beings. Nevertheless, there is apparently a close connection between the two types. Wallraff’s uncovering and documenting seems to show the violation of Articles 5 and 23; the deconstruction of the professional integrity of the journalists is a presupposition for their attack on the honor and reputation of ordinary citizens, or, to put it even more basic, the first offending of human dignity is a cause for the second.

13 Unerwünschte Reportagen [13 Unwanted Reports]

Wallraff’s way of blowing the whistle by the use of undercover journalism to uncover and document basic human rights violations at the workplace is characterized by a development when it comes to how much time and effort he invests in the project. There is a line coming from the first period of his authorship when he used limited time in his fictitious roles into the second and third period we have analyzed so far, the 1970s and 1980s. While he was playing the role as Ali Levent for 2 years from 1983, he worked in Bild-Zeitung for 3.5 months as Hans Esser in 1977. The most famous book from the first period, 13 Unerwünschete Reportagen (1969), portrays a more fragmentized picture. He uses hours, days, or some weeks in each role. In this period, the element of humor when almost teasing the persons he fools is more in the foreground compared to the second and third period.

He penetrates into a psychiatric clinic behaving as an alcoholic trying to uncover that the patients are treated in a dehumanizing way. In this way he challenged treatment models for patients in psychiatric hospitals (Jørgensen and Rendtorff 2018). He lies about his identity as a member of the government asking the management of different German companies how far they have come in the recruitment and training of paramilitary groups that should be used against striking workers that might have communistic sympathies. He contacts the security police, presents himself as a member of the neo-Nazi party NPD, and wants to be an agent that could spy on communistic sympathizers with potential contacts to East Germany. He pretends to be a regretting sinner asking for forgiveness meeting priests in the Catholic Church. He told them that he was an owner of a company producing the most important material of napalm bombs and that he had managed to sell a large order to the American army.

These more fragmentized pictures of violations of human rights at the workplace have for the three first examples to do with inhuman and degrading treatment (Article 5).

Our interpretation of the examples gives us the possibility to formulate a working hypothesis:

Wallraff develops his method of blowing the whistle about human rights violations at the work place and about the underlying offending of the human dignity of powerless people by using more and more time on each project. This gives him the possibility to uncover and document more and more in detail how the violations more concretely are taken place at the workplace and correspondingly how detailed and concrete human dignity is offended.


However, Wallraff did not invent the method of undercover journalism as blowing the whistle about human rights violations; he vitalized it as a method that had existed for a long time. Broeke Krueger argues in her book Undercover Reporting that “much of the valuable journalism in the past century and a half has emerged from undercover investigations that employed subterfuge or deception to expose wrong” (Kroeger 2012).

Examples are according to Krueger persons as James Redpath who mingled as casual traveler and walked 700 miles in the southern states on foot in order to interviewing slaves and collecting relevant material. The stories were published in 1859 as The Roving Editor: Or, Talks with Slaves in the Southern States. The book’s production costs were covered by prominent antislavery philanthropist Gerrit Smith (Mogensen 2000). Nelly Bly, a female journalist who acted as a mentally sick and was admitted to hospital in 1987, is another example. She exposed unacceptable conditions there and published her material in Ten Days in a Mad-House. Moreover, Upton Sinclair who dressed like a worker and mingled into a meat factory for 1 week in 1904 (Kroeger 2012) is also another case. Undercover journalism was not only rooted in an American tradition but also a European. Haas (1999, p. 307) refers to an interesting analogy between the French author Eugene Sue and Wallraff. Sue published his Secrets in Paris in 1842–1843 as a novel in Journal des Débats in Paris. The protagonist, a dandy, enters the underworld of Paris disguised, in the world of the poor and criminals. Sue criticizes the circumstances and suggests improvement. Some of them were realized.

Wallraff’s undercover journalism occurred in continuity with this old American and European tradition of detecting violations of human rights and injustice – vitalized it and institutionalized it into the infrastructure of media, by the introduction of Lex Wallraff, a law important for the activist journalism of the radical student movement.

Wallraff and the Radical Youth-Movement

However, Wallraff’s method ought to be understood also in line with more recent sources of inspiration that existed closer in time and space in connection with the concern for the citizen’s rights movements of the 1960s. Wallraff based his radical method of whistleblowing on his undercover journalism and as such on an activist method of accurate preparation, planning, ideological reflections, and cooperative writing (Haas 1999, pp. 306–307).

As such, his activist journalism was part of the radical student movement’s public criticism of western democracies as a capitalistic system that exploited industrial workers and other employees at the bottom of society to the benefit of the ruling class (Gottschlich 2010, p. 62).

Wallraff being at the age 26 in the pivotal year of 1968 when the demonstrations occurred in Paris, influenced this student movement with his activist journalism throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Moreover, the movement influenced his synthesis through the same period.

On the one hand, Wallraff’s use of the journalistic method was a great inspiration for the radical student movement, not least when it comes to the part of his authorship categorized as “Arbeiterliteratur.” He published reportages from a large number of German industrial companies: Ford in Köln, Blohm+Voss in Hamburg, Siemens in Müchen, Benteler in Paderborn, and Sinteranlage and Thyssen-Hütte in Duisburg (Ludwig 1976, pp. 86–87). The books were sold in large editions. The student movement used his authorship as a documentation of the suppressive function of the system.

On the other hand, significant front men of that movement, among them Heinrich Böll and the French working priests, were an inspiration for him as well, precisely when it comes to the use of the activist method of informing the public. The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum inspired Wallraff to write in the same way as Böll did, trying to document how ordinary people suffered injustice and experienced lack of meaning almost as in Franz Kafka’s stories, because of the irrational exploitation of the system, not because of individual evilness. His explanation was structural, as was the Marxist inspired explanation of the movement (Interview and dialogue at BI Business School Oslo October 2016). In addition, the Nobel Prize winner Heinrich Böll, as one of the front men of the movement, supported Wallraff when his enemies dragged him to court and tried to criminalize his undercover method. Talking directly to the judge, Böll with his eminent metaphorical skills gave the judge the opportunity to identify with Wallraff’s project:

If Wallraff’s method is criminalized … one deprives … the current literature in BRD a large possibility. The possibility to fulfill the function that neither unions nor employers’ associations are able to fulfill: to control if the companies comply with the law. That’s what I mean Wallraff does: Almost acting as a lawyer in public life. (Gottschlich, p. 75)

Existential Motivation

Wallraff has underscored that his father’s dead was important for the development of his method (Interview Oslo 2016). His father died after being a worker in the private industrial sector for his whole life. According to Ludwig (1976), Wallraff’s father ended his working life in the “Lackhölle bei Ford.” He had lost all his illusions about the working life of Germany. The working conditions were hazardous and seemed to have caused his death. Consequently, the causes behind his father’s death seem to be an initial and significant experience of injustice for Wallraff.

Another analogue experience was the anxiety of losing his identity as a child. Jürgen Gottschlich writes in his biography that his father was in hospital for several months when Günter was a child. His mother had to work in order to save the economy of the family. She sent the boy to an orphanage administered by nuns. Wallraff was suddenly thrown into a world where he was a stranger experiencing a deep loss of identity. He has underscored that the feeling of losing his identity lead him as an adult to try to find new identities by entering different kinds of roles. As an artist of identity transformation, Wallraff is playing a fool game of assuming different identities in different life contexts.

Wallraff writes a poem, using pseudonym, in the lyric journal “Flugschrift,” where Heinrich Böll was editor. His main point of view is that he is without identity because masks occur on the surface of his existence as a reflection of his inner life. Ludwig (1976) underscores that Wallraff’s decision to be a military evader influenced his attitudes significantly. Wallraff was applying much too late to evade the military service (Walraff 2000). Consequently, in 1963, he was forced to participate. He refused during 10 months to use a weapon and wrote down in his diary what happened. Supported by Heinrich Böll, he challenged the system by saying he would go public with the diary. He was offered to leave the service but refused. The military doctor used an accident where Wallraff got concussion as a pretext to force him to be a patient at the psychiatric clinic in the military hospital in Koblenz, where he was observed and stigmatized with a psychiatric diagnosis. Ludwig (1976, p. 86) argues that Wallraff understood the challenging experiences he was confronted with by the military service as an example of how individual burdens are caused by repressive dynamics of a system.

The Relevance: What Can We Learn from Wallraff’s Method?

We have demonstrated that compared with the contemporary understanding and approaches to whistleblowing, Wallraff’s method converges or moves towards the dignity-based concept of whistleblowing in relation to uncover and document the truth about violations of basic human business rights at the workplace. What is at stake in Wallraff’s concept of whistleblowing is not only to detect some single violations of human rights or some wrongdoing or harm, but it is a more principle-based defense of human dignity in relation to some specific, fundamental human rights. In line with Hoffman’s and McNulty’s Universal Dignity Theory of Whistleblowing, we can say that Wallraff’s concept of whistleblowing is concerned with the fundamental defense of human dignity of the relevant stakeholders of the organization in relation to the concern for human rights at the workplace. With Hoffman and McNulty, we can mention Kant’s principles of human dignity as essential: “All human beings have intrinsic worth or dignity by virtue of their humanity and no individual has the moral authority to deny others their inherent dignity” (Hoffman and McNulty 2011, p. 50; Kant 1983). Such a visionary principle can also be said to be the driving force of Wallraff’s radical activist method of whistleblowing. The concern for human dignity of the oppressed and the protection of the human rights of employees based on a public discussion of the information given by his whistleblowing is an important motivation for Wallraff’s concept of human dignity. In this context, the method for detecting human rights violations can be offered as an important method to be used by NGOs and human rights activist groups.

However, there are also important elements in Wallraff’s approach that moves his methodology beyond a purely visionary/Kantian concept of human dignity. Wallraff’s existentialist focus on the right to lie in going undercover to detect human rights violations breaks with the Kantian principles of the duty always to say the truth. Moreover, Wallraff has a strong Marxist and phenomenological account of human dignity as conditioned by the employee’s social and bodily existence rather than abstract morality. It is true that Wallraff adopts the concern for human social and bodily dignity as pivotal, but this concern also moves beyond Kant’s concept of autonomy and the free will. Wallraff agrees with Kant that human beings should not be reduced to objects and instruments for other people, but he also moves beyond Kant with his Marxist interpretation of human dignity that focuses on the concern for the dignity and human rights of the bodily and social existence of the workers or employees in the factory or business firm. This combination of phenomenological existentialism and Marxism in Wallraff’s approach is important as a foundation for protection of human dignity in order to foster human rights at the workplace.

We can emphasize the following dimensions of this dignity-based concept of whistleblowing.

Whistleblower Activism as a Mirror of Organizational Wrongdoing

The general relevance of Wallraff’s method for conceptions of whistleblowing in organizations is that his books function as a detailed mirror of the problems of how injustice in organization are hurting or threatening the dignity of human beings as a phenomenon of spirit/free will and bodily existence. The role-playing contributes to the formulation of a general theory of problems of justice in organizations and protection of human rights in business. With his activist undercover approach, he shows the violations of basic human rights in different parts of the working life and how human dignity is basically threatened.

From Silent Victim to Active Victim

Here we see that the victim of harm is not conceived as a passive, silent subject unable to give voice to the experience of spiritual and bodily harm or offending of dignity. On the contrary, the victim in the role of experiencing the violations of basic human rights is conceived as the whistleblower with firsthand knowledge to what has happened. The whistleblower is by the use of undercover journalism method actively seeking situations of injustice as an eyewitness in order to report about them to the public. Here, Wallraff’s radical method challenges us not to remain silent victims passively ignoring our possibility to use freedom of speech as a fundamental human right to support other basic human rights. On the contrary, he challenges us to be active victims and seekers of the situations of injustice and to use the human right of freedom of speech when we work in all kinds of organizations in order to create justice and to protect human dignity.

Whistleblowing as Existential Commitment

Wallraff’s method provides us with a language for understanding whistleblowing as an existential commitment of employees towards a basic human right in their organizations – freedom of speech – as a commitment to a dangerous weapon. With the activist method, the employee understands the need and obligation to fight for social justice in organizations, by using this weapon, which is protected by national law and by the human rights declaration of 1948. Since whistleblowing is protected to a different degree by national laws and constitutions on freedom of speech, as we discussed with the support of Fasterling and Lewis (2014), the commitment is easier to see in the relation to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights from 1948 than in relation to particular national laws. Employees can no longer be morally, blind, mute or deaf to injustice in their organizations confronted with this universal vision. They have an existential obligation to blow the whistle as an effective vehicle to protect human dignity in the double sense we have focused upon.

Whistleblower Activism as Employee Engagement

Wallraff’s method makes us aware of the need to be actively involved for organizational justice, as a contribution to a democratic society as a structural protection of human dignity. The problem of whistleblowing is not only about individual justice or about institutional justice in an atomistic sense but indeed an issue of employee engagement for justice and democracy in society based on justice in organizations. Wallraff’s method contributes to move the problem of organizational justice from the individual to be a general concern of what type of society we need to take care of human dignity. Lex Wallraff legitimizing undercover journalism and securing justice in the society is one important consequence of this method.

Organizational Justice

Wallraff’s method demonstrates that there is a close link between organizational openness and democratic justice in society and its laws on the one hand and between organizational lack of openness and injustice on the other. The public criticism of organizational injustice is problematic for the image and brand of organizations when they act as closed and secret entities. Businesses need to take the challenge from this activist whistleblowing seriously, in order to restore their image and create more transparent structures. Employees can use Wallraff’s method as a driver of change for openness and justice in their organizations.

The Will to Suffer

Wallraff was an inspiration when it comes to showing a deep will to suffer in order to experience and identify what type of human rights violations one ought to blow the whistle about. Wallraff entered a lot of different institutions and situations showing an extraordinary strong will to suffer for the sake of protecting other person’s human dignity against human rights violations. It is an inspiration for us in our organizations to be influenced by such an unselfish will and to enter situations that could turn out to be a physical and psychic burden, aiming to protect our fellow colleagues and their interests against the same type of human rights violations and as such protect their human dignity towards harm and injustice.

Trusting Public Opinion

Wallraff’s activist method of whistleblowing can be interpreted as a radical expression of trusting the public opinion as a guarantee for the protection of basic human rights. According to Wallraff, public opinion, discussion, and criticism, informed by whistleblowing, is the main force able to move institution’s from violating basic human rights to be transparent, just and protecting human dignity. As such, Wallraff’s position converges towards Jürgen Habermas evaluation of the transformational power of public opinion. We can say that the communicative power of public opinion contributes to the development of a framework for protecting basic human rights in business.

Preliminary Conclusion on Dignity and Human Rights

With this approach to a radical activist method of whistleblowing as an essential method for detecting human rights violations in business firms, we can conclude with a highlight of the concept of human dignity and human rights in business that is the basis for detection of wrongdoing and injustice in organization. Essential in this conception is the Marxist and existentialist correction of the Kantian concept of human dignity based on the phenomenological approach to the social and bodily dimensions of oppressed and alienated human work life in organizations. Protection of human dignity and revelation of violation of human dignity is here the most important task for the whistleblowing method in organizations.

Arguments for Institutionalization of Wallraff’s Method

Therefore, what are the arguments for institutionalization of undercover journalism as a method of whistleblowing in contemporary society? We can emphasize that there is a need to make human rights violations public in democratic society. NGOs and human rights groups can with great success contribute to this by using methods of activist whistleblowing based on the institutionalization of undercover activities. More transparent organizations created by whistleblowing are necessary in order to protect and respect human dignity in a more profound way. However, there is not only a freedom of expression but also a responsibility of expression. The focus on the concept undercover journalism in whistleblowing contributes to make the need for public democratic discussion of injustice present in society.

Wallraff’s method can be seen in the perspective of Jürgen Habermas idea of the central importance of the rationality of public space for protection of basic human rights and civil rights in society (Habermas 1989). However, Wallraff’s method combines the actions of playing fictitious roles with observation and going public with the verbal  information, while Habermas’ idea concerns the verbal discussion on the societal level. Through Wallraff’s is combination of undercover journalism and whistleblowing, it is possible to detect injustice in society and this contributes to define ethical and social legitimacy in the public space with regard to the concern for protection of human rights in society. Legitimacy of organizations is defined through social acceptance in society. Undercover journalism and whistleblowing contribute to the evaluation of legitimacy as an important feature of the social existence of organizations, businesses, and institutions in society. We can say that Wallraff contributes to the institutionalization of undercover journalism as a method of whistleblowing in contemporary society.

A potential criticism of this institutionalization of undercover journalism is that there may be severe ethical problems linked to Wallraff’s method because one basis of the method is a lie. This is the Marxist criticism of the Kantian approach to dignity, as we described earlier. For Wallraff in opposition to Kant, we need to accept that in extreme situations where you have a moral duty to detect wrongdoing and violations of human rights, ends justify means, and you are allowed to hide your identity in order to detect injustice in organizations. You have to go undercover in order to detect injustice and reveal the destruction of human dignity in bodily and social terms. However, Wallraff moves from a position close to Kant to a position close to Marx when he argues that the evil of lying is a smaller problem than a persistent injustice. Wallraff argues consequently that this unethical behavior is justified by the fact that injustice is revealed. Therefore ends justify means in the fight for protection of basic human rights in business.

A more practical criticism is that Wallraff’s method does not really function in practice and continues to be some kind of scandal journalism. This criticism is based on an unethical and not very argumentative approach to journalism and whistleblowing. This is connected to a populistic criticism that argues that this method is based on populism where the product of the whistleblowing activity is based on scandalizing the authorities of society. Accordingly, the argument goes, we cannot really justify that whistleblowing is based on undercover journalism because it can never live up to the ideal of Habermas’ rational argumentative discussion in public debates. Here, we would like to emphasize that to promote human rights in business through radical whistleblowing is based on sincerity and seriousness by those using this method of undercover journalism. Only in this way the method can be effective.

However, the institutionalization of Wallraff’s method for uncovering violations of human rights in business also leaves us with some more practical problems. How should we practice whistleblowing undercover journalism in order to develop good proposals for ethics of business and business and human rights? What kind of whistleblowing activity is also ethical and how does whistleblowing contribute to democratic processes between freedom of expression and responsibility of expression for human rights in business? What is the responsibility of expression by those, including NGOs and human rights activists, who engage in this kind of undercover journalism in order to promote human rights in business?

Discussion: What Are the Limits and Possibilities of Wallraff’s Method of Whistleblowing for Democratic Justice?

So we have presented Wallraff’s method as a new form of approach to whistleblowing that generalizes the right to whistleblowing as a universal human right based on the respect for fundamental human dignity of people in organizations and organizational stakeholders, but what are the limits and possibilities for this new concept of whistleblowing in organizations?

The Decay and Revival of the Public Sphere

Traditionally, public discourse is considered as a necessary precondition for democratic justice, because a broad and thorough public discussion is necessary in order both to lay the most informed fundament for significant decisions on the different sectors of society and to promote the most thorough criticism fostering the largest potential for improvement at the same sectors.

However, theorists as Habermas underscore the problem of decay in the public life of democracy. One of the most important elements of Habermas’ iconic dissertation The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (Habermas 1962) is the concept of public decay. According to this analysis, the public sphere returns to an earlier stage of development, less rational, through modernity. Persons discussing in the public sphere becomes less interested in listening to the argument of his/her partner. It became more important to be eloquent, nice, sympathetic, and reasonable. When discussions from Bundestag were communicated on the television, the discussions changed considerably. It was more important to be understood as a trustworthy person than to convince your discussion partners in the hall. The rational and valuable discussion was challenged.

It is reasonable to consider Wallraff’s synthesis of whistleblowing and undercover journalism as foundation for detecting human rights violations in business as presupposing something likewise radical as Habermas’ theory. Wallraff indicates that the public does not know that institutions in the public and private sector are breaking the laws of working life and thus being responsible for a waste array of human rights violations. Wallraff’s main concept here is what Böll in a testimony in court has called “institutions as secrets.” It is because workplaces as the government, church, police, companies, and hospitals are secret entities that the public does not know what is going on there. An institution is a phenomenon in time and space hiding what is going on inside.

Consequently, the public sphere is a phenomenon without sufficient knowledge about the offending of human dignity in the institutions in society. Wallraff’s radical synthesis of whistleblowing and undercover journalism as a means to promote democratic justice has this critical understanding of a decay in the public sphere as an important point of departure for the need to use the radical method for uncovering and documenting a complex set of human rights violations in business.

Wallraff’s ability to fight the problem of decay and to contribute to a structural transformation of the public sphere is linked to a strategy of radical transparency. His large number of books function as detailed mirrors or complex proofs of the problems of the secrecy of human rights violations in organizations in the hand of what Böll called “a lawyer accusing concrete persons and institutions.” According to Böll, Wallraff acted as a lawyer in the public sphere trying to fill the function that neither unions nor employers association were able to fulfill: “To control if the companies were acting according to the law.” By mentioning the concrete names of the management in specific parts of the church, police, industrial companies, and healthcare sector responsible for human rights violations, he contributes to a more enlightened public sphere.

Several debates about the dangerous conditions in the working life of the West German society were raised because of his provocative way of combining whistleblowing and undercover journalism (Gottschlich, pp. 54–58, 75, 86–88, 99–100, 107–108, 113, 128–151, 179–192). As a way of fighting the decay of the public sphere and contribute to a more enlightened one, his synthetic method was an enormous success. His project did not only change the restrictive legislation on undercover journalism in West Germany to allow it. Books were sold in millions of exemplars, Ganz Unten in five million. This book about the Turkish guest worker was the most sold nonfiction book in West Germany after Second World War when published.

On the one hand, it would be naïve to imagine that it is possible to use Wallraff’s method and have the same success when it comes to contribute to a more enlightened pubic sphere by blowing the whistle. Wallraff’s success of bearing the burdens of whistleblowing and undercover journalism was closely linked to historically unique presuppositions at that time: to extreme presuppositions in his own life and to the extraordinary receptivity of the society he operated in. He was physically and mentally an exceptionally strong person. He was a marathon runner during large parts of his life, and ran 10 kilometers each day until the age of 65. His biograph Jürgen Gottschlich begins his book by stating “The energy of the man seems to be inexhaustible.” His courage was tremendous. He dared to place himself repeatedly in situations that were not only a risk for his mental and physical health but was deadly as well. When it comes to the receptivity of his society, Wallraff was suddenly the right man at the right time. His first book, Wir brauchen Dich. Als Arbeiter in deutchen Industriebetrieben (1966), appeared in the center of a discussion about the future of the bourgeois literature. Hans Magnus Enzensberger predicted at that time a much better outcome for the documentary literature than for the bourgeois novel. He challenged German authors to raise the mind of German citizens politically. He underscored Wallraff’s industrial reportages as a positive example. The student movement in West Germany that begun as a protest towards the “professor university,” the big coalition in the Bundestag between the two large political parties and towards USA’s war in Vietnam, was searching for a theoretical basis for their vision of fundamental changes of the society. Their problem was that Marx, Lenin, and Engels idealized the working class as the power behind the revolution, not the student movement. Among them, almost none came from the working class. For most of them, Marx’s description of the proletariat referred to another planet. Wallraff’s industrial reportages came in the very right moment. The whole movement was searching for what they found in him and his books. Consequently, Wallraff became one of their most influential moral heroes (Gottschlich, p. 62).

On the other hand, some elements in Wallraff’s successful synthesis is possible to implement in the historical situation of our time even if the person that should blow the whistle through undercover journalism does not have the extreme physical and mental strength of Wallraff and does not meet the same high receptivity in society. It is apparently possible to use the method based on normal personal presuppositions and a normal receptivity in society, as history shows us. Many undercover journalists have blown the whistle about basic human rights violations during the last decade, more or less in the same way Wallraff did. This was, for example, the case in connection with the business scandals of the financial crises or other cases of corruption and wrongdoing in organizations. However, in a postmodern area, one could argue that the visionary goals of society have vanished. “The horizons have disappeared,” to quote Friedrich Nietzsche.

Undercover journalism was a means in the hands of political activists in order to achieve a visionary goal, a more just society. In a postmodern area, a more just society becomes something new, entertainment, reality TV, something to consume, to argue along the line of Colin Campbell (2005). Symptomatically, Wallraff himself is today the editor of a reality program at the most commercial TV channel in Germany, RTL. Undercover journalism has become reality TV, entertainment. The spectators are not inspired to go undercover, but they are entertained. Neil Postman criticizes this trend in modern media and show business with the well-known ironic words: “We are amusing ourselves to death” (1985). Here, maybe NGOs and human rights activist groups may contribute to a more serious use of activist whistleblowing in organizations.

In this neo-Nietzschean perspective, what Wallraff is doing is to contribute to the play between visibility and invisibility in the transparent organization making itself transparent as a part of the logic of neoliberal society. This transformation is indeed the case in the digital concept of disclosure in the digital age (Heemskergen 2016). Wallraff’s construction of narratives of transparency is supposed to contribute to visions of democracy and emancipation in the public sphere, but in reality it is just a new dimension of the neoliberal domination logic of capitalist business organization, because his undercover journalism contributes to hide power structures as the entertaining media at the same time as it makes other structures visible. In this Foucault perspective on transparency and whistleblowing, social visibility cannot contribute to emancipation, but rather it is a part of a neoliberal visibility regime where Wallraff as author and emancipatory activist is becoming himself a part of biopolitical panopticon in sociotechnical control society (Brighenti 2010). Wallraff’s status as icon and showperson in the German public illustrates this neoliberal and postmodern function of his work, where his public exposure contributes to hide other biopolitical domination structures in society. His narrative of emancipation may not be a real radical narrative, but rather a narrative in the tension between the visible and the invisible (Birchall 2014). This postmodern critique of Wallraff’s project is a very serious critique not only of his project of whistleblowing for revealing injustice but indeed also of the whole concept of subjectivation of individuals with human rights in business. In the constructivist perspective, in contrast to our phenomenological and hermeneutic point of view, the oppressed worker, revealed by Wallraff, is indeed also constructed as a subject which is objectified and stigmatized as “the other” and as the person who is “Ganz Unten” with the process of whistleblowing of his work conditions in the public. In this sense Wallraff’s work can be interpreted in a field of establishing subject positions between seeing and being seen. This is a strategic field of visibility/invisibility, transparency/intransparency that is also characterized by indeterminacy, because it is manipulated by the subjects themselves as part of the biotechnological field of social control (Brighenti 2010). As success writer, who sold a lot of best seller books on constructing the oppressed other and himself as a hero of whistleblowing, Wallraff is himself a part of this logic of visibility/invisibility who plays in a space of biopolitical subjectivation.

Another type of criticism comes from Wallraff himself. He has criticized his own method sharply (Interview 2016). He underlined that he should not have limited himself to use the method to reveal human rights violations and injustice in the West. The reason for this limitation was the fear to give ammunition to “the envy.” He should also have used the method in order to show human rights violations east of the iron curtain. The implication of this criticism is that the method has a universal potential of protecting human dignity, independent of what type of political system is in power.

However, our interest goes in the direction of one specific element: the virtue-ethical basis of Wallraff’s synthesis of whistleblowing and undercover journalism. We consider this basis as a bridge to a more general use of his method.

Authenticity and Whistleblowing

Charles Taylor’s concept of authenticity could be a useful theory to identify this virtue-ethical basis when identifying the possibilities of his method. Taylor developed his theory in two books, Sources of the Self (1989) and The Ethics of Authenticity (1992). In the first book, he argued that the moral sources of early western tradition were de-cosmologized and internalized the closer we come to modernity. Taylor was inspired by Weber’s theory about secularization as the “Entzauberung der Welt.” Three periods are significant in this development away from the concept of cosmos as the source of moral life: the affirmation of ordinary life in the reformation, the ideal of nature in romanticism, and the ratio of the enlightenment. Representatives of the French and German strand of romanticism, Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778), Johann Gottfried Herder (1744–1803), William Blake (1757–1804), and William Wordsworth (1770–1850), develop a new understanding of ethics. In opposition to the reformation’s understanding of the inner world of humans as sinful, they understood the inner nature as something we ought to meet and be in dialogue with. This inner nature contained depths impossible to control by our articulations but at the same time only possible to grip by our inadequate articulations, words, and art.

In the second book, Taylor argues that romanticism articulated a modern, individualistic, ethical, ideal authenticity, the quest for being sincere and honest towards your originality, in order for this originality to flourish, in opposition to copy other persons and be lost in conformity and traditionalism.

Wallraff’s successful synthesis of whistleblowing and undercover journalism, could be interpreted as a radical and complex type of authenticity. Wallraff’s way of being authentic was to publish books as a detailed mirror of the complex set of human rights violations at several workplaces, based on participating in these institutions through playful role-playing. As such, he showed honesty and sincerity towards his originality as a human being, his father’s death and suffering in the chemical industry, his anxiety as a child for losing his identity, his quest as a young man for bearing masks in order to create new identities, and his search for homo ludens as the way of creating true knowledge. This was included in his will to expand the right to freedom of speech to include lies about your identity in order to fight for basic human rights in the capitalist economic system.

Consequently, the concept of radical and complex authenticity opens the door to use Wallraff’s synthesis of whistleblowing and undercover journalism as an inspiration to fight injustice, foster human rights in business, and contribute to an enlightened public sphere where human dignity is offended. Human beings are able to be sincere and honest towards the experience of death, suffering, anxiety, masking, homo ludens, and freedom of speech, as Wallraff was so consequently in his life, in order to protect human dignity. Such an existential authenticity towards archetypical human experiences opens the door to participate actively in institutions, but on a more fragmentary basis than Wallraff, in roles where you are hiding your identity inside systems of oppression. There you can act strategically in these roles, in order to observe how the system responds, and last but not the least misuse trust in order to collect information of public interest and go public with this information, even if it hurts. However, this radical authenticity is legitimate, only if it is linked to being honest and sincere towards such original experiences in the lives of the persons involved. Only then would it be legitimate to blow the whistle, in a Wallraffian perspective, based on accurate preparation, planning, and ideological reflections (Haas 1999, pp. 306–307).


In this chapter, we have investigated Günter Wallraff’s method of radical activist whistleblowing as a proposal for a method for uncovering and documenting violations of basic human rights in the workplaces. We have demonstrated how whistleblowing can be a contribution to institutionalization of CSR, ethics programs, and integrity in organizations (Rendtorff 2011a, b). Therefore, whistleblowing is essential to cosmopolitan business ethics (Rendtorff 2017). This is a good case that shows the complexities of business legitimacy and whistleblowing. With the use of this method, it is in particular possible to detect the underlying offending of the human dignity of the powerless employees in organization. This method detecting violations of human rights in business represents a radicalization of the dominant concepts of whistleblowing in the literature on business ethics. Wallraff’s concept radicalizes the justification of whistleblowing by Richard De George and Michael W. Hoffman by adding the activist element to whistleblowing as undercover reporting. Now, whistleblowing has become an activity where the whistleblower actively goes undercover by penetrating into the organization in order to uncover and document violations of basic human rights in organizations, trusting the public sphere as a force able to create progress on the basis of an informed discussion. NGOs and human rights activist can learn a lot from this and use this method to work systematically to detect hidden human rights violations in organizations. Wallraff’s approach is in line with the Kantian urge to protect human dignity, but it also breaks with the Kantian tradition from a Marxist, existentialist, and body phenomenological perspective. Whistleblowing in order to detect violations of human rights in organizations can therefore be considered in the perspective of the universal dignity approach to human dignity, but it also goes beyond that concept by focusing on engaged whistleblowing as existential commitment based on human authenticity. Whistleblowing as role-playing is also an art of taking over identities in organizations in order to have better access to the effort to detect injustice and wrongdoing in organizations with the focus on protecting human rights in the workplace. Radical activist whistleblowing makes whistleblowing a way of life searching for authentic human existence in the fight against injustice to promote human rights in business.


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Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2020

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.BI Norwegian Business SchoolOsloNorway
  2. 2.Department of Social Sciences and BusinessRoskilde UniversityCopenhagenDenmark

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