In 2002, three women—Coleen Rowley (former FBI agent), Cynthia Cooper (former WorldCom accountant) and Sherron Watkins (former Enron accountant) were honored as Time Magazine’s “Persons of the Year” for blowing the whistle on power abuses, fraud and corruption they witnessed at the hands of their employers. The term “whistleblower” alludes to someone who witnesses improper or criminal activity and “blows a whistle” to alert law enforcement, media, ethics organizations or other parties that may be able to expose the offenders and end the wrongdoing.

Speaking Up

Each year, thousands of employees witness workplace wrongdoing that could jeopardize the wellbeing of others, but most remain silent out of fear of losing their jobs or other retaliation. Others become whisteblowers in order to end unethical behavior in their workplace.

(More from CMS: Fraud and Ethics Hotline Service)

Whistleblowers will feel compelled to speak up when they are convinced that a person or persons within their organization is guilty of illegal behavior, fraud, abuse of power, waste, mismanagement, or behavior that poses a danger to public health and safety.

However, most employees who feel compelled to report wrongdoing to officials outside their company usually do so only after unsuccessfully venting their concerns to management within the organization. It’s not until they’re left feeling ignored or intimidated for speaking up that most whistleblowers turn to outside agencies for help.

Perception and Retaliation

While many people rally behind whistleblowers, applauding them as heroes for taking action against corruption, others consider them to be traitors. Sharing information, often surreptitiously, to expose people or organizations operating unethically (or illegally) is often likened to biting the hand that feeds you. Often whistleblowers are labeled as troublemakers, shunned by management and co-workers, or dismissed as nothing more than disgruntled employees who harbor a grudge against their employer and are out for revenge.

(More from CMS: Supreme Court Whistleblower Ruling Impacts Private Companies)

Seeking Internal Resolution

However, studies show that most whistleblowers try first to address their concerns internally before seeking external intervention. The choice to go outside the company for help comes only after their attempts to resolve matters through organizational channels have proven futile.

According to a 2011 supplemental study included in that year’s National Business Ethics Survey (NBES) titled, “Inside the Mind of a Whistleblower” and published by the Ethics Resource Center (ERC), only two percent of employees turn to outside agencies to report misconduct without first addressing the matter internally. Fears of being ignored or possible retaliation are common reasons people seek external intervention.

Some of history’s most famous whistleblowers include Daniel Ellsberg, Mark Felt and Frank Serpico.