Home Opinion/Commentary Boeing admits to reprimanding whistleblowers: Why does its CEO still have a job?

Boeing admits to reprimanding whistleblowers: Why does its CEO still have a job?

by Todd Humber

June 23 was World Whistleblower Day. It’s an opportunity to stop and remember that whistleblowing is an act of courage, often undertaken by individuals with a deep sense of duty and integrity.

These are the people who dare to speak up when they see something wrong, risking their careers, their reputations, and sometimes even their lives.

Yet, Boeing’s recent admission of penalizing whistleblowers highlights a troubling reality: instead of being celebrated as heroes, these individuals are too often treated as pariahs.

I watched some of the hearing last week, where Boeing CEO Dave Calhoun was put on the hotseat in Washington, D.C.

Senator Richard Blumenthal’s revelation that more than a dozen whistleblowers have come forward to expose safety risks within Boeing is alarming. The issues they’ve raised are not trivial — they pertain to the very safety of the aircraft we board, trusting that all standards have been met and that all protocols have been followed.

And how are they treated? Like troublemakers.

Toxic cultures

Calhoun’s acknowledgment that the company has retaliated against these individuals is a stark reminder of the toxic culture that pervades many corporate environments. Calhoun admitted he has never directly spoken to any whistleblower. This detachment from the very people risking everything to ensure the company’s integrity is deeply concerning.

Retaliation against whistleblowers is not just unethical — it’s dangerous. When employees fear retribution, they are less likely to report issues. This culture of silence can lead to catastrophic outcomes. Boeing’s history is a testament to this. The two crashes of the 737 Max in 2018 and 2019, which resulted in 346 deaths, were linked to failures in the company’s safety protocols and oversight.

It’s not an exaggeration to say the chilling effect of whistleblower retaliation could very well have contributed to these tragedies.

Blumenthal’s criticism that Boeing scapegoats workers rather than holding management accountable underscores a fundamental problem. Shifting the blame downward protects those at the top but does nothing to address the underlying issues. It’s a tactic that breeds resentment and mistrust among employees, and ultimately, it undermines the safety and efficacy of the entire organization.

It’s also bad for shareholder value, if you want to use some corporate speak.

‘He broke:’ The story of John Barnett

John Barnett’s tragic story is a poignant example of the personal toll this takes. He worked for Boeing for more than 30 years, retiring in 2017.

“After whistleblower, John Barnett, raised his concerns about missing parts, he reported that his supervisor called him 19 times in one day and 21 times another day,” said Blumenthal. “And when Barnett asked his supervisor about those calls, he was told, quote, ‘I’m going to push you until you break.’ He broke.”

Barnett died by suicide.

It is a haunting reminder of the human cost of corporate malfeasance. It’s not just about planes and profits — it’s about lives.

A practical imperative

Building a culture that supports whistleblowers is not just a moral imperative; it’s a practical one. Companies that encourage and protect whistleblowers are inherently safer and more trustworthy. When employees feel safe to speak up, issues are addressed promptly and transparently, preventing small problems from becoming disasters.

For Boeing, the path forward must include a genuine commitment to change. This means more than apologies and promises; it means tangible actions. It means establishing and enforcing strict anti-retaliation policies. It means creating an environment where every employee, from the factory floor to the executive suite, feels empowered and protected to raise concerns.

And it means that leaders like Calhoun need to engage directly with whistleblowers, not just as a public relations move, but as a core aspect of their leadership responsibility.

Frankly, it means Calhoun should resign. He admitted whistleblowers have been attacked by the company, and isn’t even sure how often.

‘Senator, I don’t have that number on the tip of my tongue. But I know it — I know it happens,’ Calhoun said. “I am happy to follow up and get you that number.”

Not good enough. It happened under his watch, and there’s no evidence to show he discouraged it.

Senator Blumenthal’s advice to Calhoun — to ensure that “speak up” means just that and not “shut up” — should be a guiding principle for all leaders. Whistleblowers should not be the enemy within; they should be the trusted allies we look to for help.

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