The Whistleblower's Ordeal

The typical experience of whistleblowers: how they find themselves compelled to speak out, and the consequences for them – and for the rest of us.

Did you ever wonder about some big scandal: “Why did no-one speak out and reveal the truth about this?” even though hundreds of people must have known what was going on? The reason is simple: this is a very dangerous thing to do, and few people have the courage required.

Anyone can find themselves in a position of having to choose between their conscience and what they are being told to do by their boss – most of us are just fortunate that this has never happened to us around an important issue. Most whistleblowers don’t start out intending to take a heroic stance or to confront the powers that be – they simply feel that they cannot ‘go along’ with some course of action that seems wrong to them.

Then one thing leads to another… Only later do they discover that it’s not just their immediate boss or a colleague that they are up against, but perhaps an entire department, perhaps an entire government, desperate to avoid bad publicity.

The reflex to deny and cover up can cause people in positions of power to overlook, condone and perpetuate all kinds of wrongdoing: incompetence, neglect and even criminal acts – all to avoid the spotlight of the media and public opinion.

Thus most whistleblowers find themselves in this role by accident, not by choice. They soon discover that this is a dangerous, career-changing, sometimes even life-threatening role. Although each whistleblower may face different circumstances in different organizations, there are uncanny similarities in what they experience. Here are the typical phases that whistleblowers go through.

1. Awareness

This phase starts with a realization that there is a difficult decision to be made. The individual may realize that:

  • they are being told (or expected) to do something that they believe is wrong, even illegal
  • they face a conflict between following orders and obeying their conscience
  • whatever direction they choose may be irreversible: if they decide to ‘go along’, then they may become implicated, and if not they will be in conflict with the system.

2. The Decision Of Conscience

The individual grappling with this decision will typically agonize at some length over how to proceed. They may seek the advice of close friends and perhaps a lawyer; and they will surely discuss their options with their family, who will also be affected by the decision.

Finally, they settle on a course of action. The decision may be to explicitly refuse to follow orders, or to seemingly 'go along' – but to gather evidence in order to expose the wrongdoing later. Many people will understandably decide to do as they are told, fearful of the consequences of 'rocking the boat'.

3. Raising Concerns Internally

Many whistleblowers believe at first that the senior people in the organization are unaware of what is going on, would want to know, and would do something about the problem if they did know. So they may decide to take their information ‘up the line’ within the organization.

The first approach may be to more senior people in the chain of command. If this is unsuccessful, the next step may be to go direct to someone at the top who seems honest and trustworthy.

The initial reactions of management may sometimes lead the whistleblower to believe that their information is valued and will be acted on – but this is often nothing but a ploy. This tactic may silence the whistleblower for a while, and lull the individual into a false sense of security while the wrongdoers plan their campaign of cover-up and reprisal. 

4. Facing Initial Reprisals

Often much sooner than they expected, the whistleblower finds that inexplicably many things seem to be going badly for them at work:

  • They suddenly receive poor performance reviews (perhaps after decades of stellar work), they are reassigned to less meaningful work, or relocated to a distant backwater (this is called 'freeway therapy')
  • Sometimes they are told bluntly that these are the consequences of 'rocking the boat'. Sometimes they are given implausible explanations or no explanation at all
  • They may become the object of a smear campaign by senior people, designed to discredit them and isolate them from colleagues
  • Colleagues and friends at work may become frightened to speak to, or even to be seen with the whistleblower
  • Other employees may shun the whistleblower, make jokes about them behind their backs – as well as in their faces, and accuse them of being a traitor or a troublemaker.

This situation is very demoralizing and hard to bear: because it may be almost impossible to prove that this is a campaign of retaliation; because the whistleblower has no recourse; and because it is never-ending.

5. The Decision To Commit Fully

At this point, many people feel that they cannot take any more and try to escape in some way – perhaps to a new job somewhere else, hoping that this will put them beyond the reach of further retaliation.

Others find themselves even more determined to stick to their guns. Having realized what they are up against, and that their initial efforts have failed, they may decide on a new course of action.

Some whistleblowers – perhaps wisely – avoid this initial retaliation by choosing at the outset to remain anonymous as long as possible, and instead to leak information to the media. These people understand that anonymous leaks to the media, although officially condemned as villainous, are in fact a tried and tested method of obtaining publicity, used frequently by politicians and bureaucrats alike. Every journalist is fully aware of this.

Another benefit of remaining anonymous is that the whistleblower is not immediately neutralized, but can remain in place undetected for longer, still gathering information to expose the wrongdoing.

6. Going Public And The Consequences

Facing retaliation, and realizing that those in power are not going to fix the problem, the whistleblower may now feel that the only course of action left is to go public – to provide information to the media. However, this is a dangerous strategy, for many reasons, and it will immediately lead to a serious escalation in the reprisals.

A leak to the media presents a clear and present threat to the wrongdoers, who will immediately ‘pull out all the stops’ to neutralize this threat. If they know the source, their counter-attack will be designed to discredit the whistleblower: typically to paint this person as unreliable, mentally unstable, pursuing a grudge or ulterior motive, being a liar, a thief, a sexual deviant…

No slander is too extreme to be believed by some people – because the transgressors have the credibility of their position and authority. Perhaps the whistleblower’s allegations about prominent people seem harder to believe than the lies being told about the whistleblower. People are reluctant to believe that those in power could be so corrupt.

The whistleblower is now completely dependent upon the media to present his/her case. Yet the media are not always reliable and not truly anyone’s ally.

The media will always present both sides of the story, including the wrongdoers’ counter-allegations and slanders, however bizarre. The media can often be superficial or inaccurate in their reporting. The media rarely assign resources to conduct proper investigative reporting to get at the facts: it’s much quicker, easier and cheaper just to print what they are told.

And the media are fickle: they may quickly drop the story as no longer ‘newsworthy’ and move on, leaving the whistleblower in limbo – discredited and without a voice.

The very act of giving information to the media may be itself viewed as unprofessional or illegal, and the wrongdoers may seize on this as a pretext for more harsh and direct punishment: perhaps invoking disciplinary procedures or taking legal action against the whistleblower. If the identity of the whistleblower is not yet known, every effort will be made to discover this – even prosecuting or intimidating journalists to reveal their sources.

7. The War Of Attrition

The whistleblower is now locked into a massively lopsided war of attrition.

On one side stand the wrongdoers, still with the credibility and authority of their positions and with the full resources of the organization behind them: legions of lawyers and public relations people, private detective agencies, perhaps even hired thugs, and seemingly unlimited funds (often being provided by the taxpayer).

On the other side stands the whistleblower, by now typically discredited in the public’s eyes, unemployed, unemployable (because of the notoriety of their case), running out of money, and perhaps losing the support of friends and family.

A union may sometimes provide some support e.g. helping the whistleblower to fund a legal defense. However, just as often the union does not want to ‘rock the boat’ by challenging those in authority. Or the union may feel that it should focus on issues like pay and benefits that affect all members, rather than taking on the costly and time-consuming defense of just one individual.

And the union itself may be incompetent, corrupt or have its own hands in the till. People who have blown the whistle on union wrongdoing have suffered reprisals just as vicious as from any corporation or government department.

A large proportion of whistleblowers are by this time so worn down by the assault on their lives, their finances and their self-esteem, that they become clinically depressed. Some commit suicide. Others just manage to struggle on somehow.

By this stage few whistleblower are well equipped –mentally, emotionally or financially – to deal with the demands of the legal process they now face: with endless legal documents to complete, discovery of evidence, appearances in court etc.  

Those who don’t have the support of a union or professional association simply cannot afford the legal fees to defend themselves. Often their lives past and present are being put under the microscope, their every word and deed scrutinized, so that ground for further attacks can be found. 

As the retaliation continues and escalates, many whistleblowers lose their families, their homes, even their supposedly secure pensions.

Another factor that makes this contest unequal is that those in authority will often abuse their powers further – even blatantly breaking the law – to hide embarrassing facts and thus to discredit the whistleblower. For example, government departments may invoke ‘national security’ to prevent disclosure. Freedom of Information requests may be stalled or ignored. Official inquiries that are getting close to the truth may be arbitrarily shut down. Key reports and documentary evidence may be ordered shredded. Police raids may be conducted to intimidate perceived critics or supporters of the whistleblower.

It’s not unusual for whistleblowers to receive death threats. When there is a lot at stake, or when career criminals are involved in some way, then these threats are highly credible and need to be taken seriously.

Dr. Jeffery Wigand received several anonymous deaths threats after his disclosures of wrongdoing in the tobacco industry. None of these was ever traced back to its source and no-one was ever charged for these criminal acts.

8. The Endgame

The harsh reality is that vested interests usually triumph: whenever the laws are inadequate, the media lazy and compliant, or citizens inattentive, then wrongdoers in high positions can discredit their accusers and bury embarrassing facts. In this situation odds are heavily stacked against whistleblowers, and only a few can ever succeed.

Even those who appear to have been successful – such as those recognized on the cover of Time Magazine – may in fact have failed in their own efforts. Later, when the scandal becomes too big to hide, the whistleblowers may be called on to testify in the subsequent inquiries. Then they may be rehabilitated, and their reputations restored. They may even be recognized for their efforts. Few get their jobs back or any kind of compensation for their ordeal.

Some whistleblowers escape to a new life, perhaps in a different place and a different job, with their families and their lives intact. But most never expect to lead normal lives again, or to find gainful employment commensurate with their abilities. Many are forever damaged in some way, perhaps subject to debilitating anxiety or depression.

Aside from the devastating effects on their lives, perhaps the most painful aspect for most whistleblowers is that there is no end to the story. For most, the harassment in various forms never stops. Most are never vindicated: usually their allegations remain unproven or clouded in doubt and controversy. And most never receive justice: the problems that they sought to uncover are not corrected, and no-one is called to account.

The Consequences For The Rest Of Us

These are the typical consequences for the whistleblower of speaking up. But what are the consequences for the rest of us when whistleblowers are crushed and silenced in this way?

Corruption is like a cancer that strikes at the very roots of democracy. Powerful politicians and bureaucrats get to pursue their personal agendas at public expense; big business interests, power brokers, even organized crime, get to influence government policy decisions and manipulate the use of public resources. The private citizen is kept in the dark and disempowered.

The main problem of corruption is not that money ends up in the pockets of a few wrongdoers: the main problem is that it subverts the entire decision-making process, whether in government or in business.

In government, corruption leads to massive waste of public money on flawed projects, and disastrous policy decisions on important matters – like health care, defense, energy – all because those involved are focused on narrow self interest, not on the public good.

In corporations, corruption leads to practices which are bad for the customers, bad for employees, and ultimately bad for shareholders and the business. In the most extreme cases, like Enron, the corporation wreaks havoc on society (e.g. deliberately causing electricity blackouts in California) – and then after the collapse leaves thousands of employees ruined and millions of shareholders cheated.

What We Can Do

In a democracy the ultimate antidote to corruption is public disclosure, and hence accountability of both governments and corporations to the law. That is why it is essential to protect people like whistleblowers who put themselves at risk to help shine a public spotlight on wrongdoing.

To preserve a free and democratic society, we need to create systems to protect whistleblowers, such as:

  • strong legislation that gives them the right to speak out, ensures that their allegations are investigated, and outlaws the harsh retaliation that is common practice today
  • advocacy organizations that will lobby for whistleblower rights, and provide moral and financial support to whistleblowers in need
  • greater awareness among private citizens – and a willingness to act, so that public opinion can be mobilized and our governments and corporations held to account for their actions.

All of this is possible if the will exists.

None of us knows when we might find ourselves being forced to make an agonizing choice – to stifle our conscience and 'go along' with wrongdoing, or to defy the wrongdoers and risk the consequences.

We owe it to ourselves and to all the brave people who have already gone down this path, to create a system that will protect and honour whistleblowers, so that many more can step forward, tell the truth and protect us.

By David Hutton, Senior Fellow, Centre for Free Expression and Former Executive Director, FAIR

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