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Silkwood - Business Ethics and WhistleblowingSilkwood - Business Ethics and Whistle-blowing


Silkwood (1983)


Famous for...

Being a classic whistle-blowing movie based on the true story of Karen Silkwood (played by Meryl Streep)Silkwood - Business Ethics and Whistleblowing

Silkwood (pictured right) mysteriously died in a car crash on November 13 1974, whilst investigating plutonium exposure to herself and other employees at the Kerr-McGee plant near Crescent, Oklahoma, USA, which makes plutonium rods for nuclear power stations.

The company never admitted liability, although the Supreme Court ruled against it.


Other whistle-blowing movies...

  • Serpico (1973) about the New York policeman, Frank Serpico (played by Al Pacino), who exposed the corruption of his fellow officers. Silkwood - Business Ethics and Whistleblowing
  • Erin Brockovich (2000) about a successful lawsuit, led by Erin Brockovich (Julia Roberts), against a polluting energy plant.
  • Michael Clayton (2007) - Clayton (George Clooney, pictured right) helps blow the whistle on U-North, who knowingly sold a carcinogenic weed killer.


Set in...

Early 1970’s Oklahoma, USA.

 Silkwood - Business Ethics and Whistleblowing


Mike Nichols (pictured right, also director of The Graduate).




 Silkwood - Business Ethics and Whistleblowing

Key characters

Karen Silkwood (Meryl Streep), nuclear energy plant employee (pictured right).

Dolly Pelliker (Cher), her lesbian friend.

Drew Stephens (Kurt Russell), her boyfriend.


The story

Karen Silkwood shares a house with her:Silkwood - Business Ethics and Whistleblowing

  • boyfriend (Drew Stephens)
  • lesbian friend (Dolly Pelliker).

(pictured right together) 


  • makes plutonium rods for nuclear reactors (pictured right below). Silkwood - Business Ethics and Whistleblowing
  • helps the union fight falling safety standards (especially when she and several other employees become contaminated with radiation).
  • becomes obsessed with gathering evidence against the company (forcing Drew to move out).

Angela (a funeral parlour beautician) moves in as Dolly’s lover.


  • contacts a New York Times reporter (when she has enough evidence).
  • is killed in a car crash before they can meet.

No other car is involved, and it is left open to question whether her death was deliberate or not.


Lessons for business ethics


1. Look after your employeesSilkwood - Business Ethics and Whistleblowing

Falling safety standards lead to:

  • Karen’s investigation.
  • employee exposure to radiation.


2. People before profit

People’s lives are more important than profit.

 Silkwood - Business Ethics and Whistleblowing

3. Fight for justice

Karen is determined to prove the company’s negligence, despite facing intense opposition and danger.

The suspicious circumstances of her car accident show how perilous her position was.


Key quote on death

They all look as though they died before they were dead, Angela (on deceased employees at Karen’s workplace suffering from radiation)


Two film websites to recommend

1. filmsite.org (run by Tim Dirks).

2. aveleyman.com (run by Tony Sullivan)

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