How Whistleblowers Can Speak Up for Justice

Part 2: 13 things you need to know.

Posted Aug 06, 2020

 Nick Shandra/Unsplash
Source: Nick Shandra/Unsplash

Have you ever stood witness to fraud, harassment, or bullying at work? Did you report the unethical behavior to upper management? Were your concerns minimized, normalized, or dismissed? If so, what did you do about it? These are the questions whistleblowers grapple with before taking the plunge into the dark abyss of public disclosure of wrongdoings.

Most who garnered the courage to act paid mightily for their civil disobedience. Many eventually found solace in the realization their tenacity and courage moved the needle on justice. As discussed in Part 1, whistleblowing is defined as “the disclosure by organization members (former or current) of illegal, immoral, or illegitimate practices under the control of their employers, to persons or organizations that may be able to effect action” (Near and Miceli, 1985).

Check out Part 1 to find out more about what it means to be a whistleblower, characteristics of moral agents, the impact of “bad follower,” potential holes in protective legislation, how civil disobedience is at times a prerequisite for truth-telling, and the philosophy that explores the creation, dissemination, and elimination of information.

Below you will read seven more interesting things research tells us about whistleblowers who speak out in the quest for justice and the repercussions for “committing the truth” (Devine and Maassarani, 2011).

 Oliver Cole/Unsplash
Source: Oliver Cole/Unsplash

7. Whistleblowing as Courage. To blow the whistle is to place oneself in the pathway of an oncoming train in an effort to save the small children playing on the tracks, hoping to raise awareness and prompt the conductor to change course, or at the very least, know your sacrifice will slow the cars and spare the children from harm. Such bold action takes courage. As eloquently stated by Schilpzand, Hekman, and Mitchell (2015), based on their 94 workplace interviews, “Courage appears to be a rare response to power.” Their research identified courage manifesting in four forms: Speaking out against authority, unearthing mistakes, structuring uncertainty, and protecting targets against attacks. These behaviors by the courageous few stood in contrast to the majority’s propensity to mimic the actions of the aggressor, instead of taking a moral stance.

8. Whistleblowing Is a Process, Not an Act—Usually Beginning With Internal Channels. Whistleblowing is not a single act, as often portrayed in the media when a scandal splashes the front page. Though external leaks often monopolize headlines, the overwhelming majority of whistleblowers first attempt to report their concerns internally. Only after repeated efforts to rectify a wrong using the organizational hierarchy to no avail, do they seek outward support and an external audience (Vandekerckhove, 2018; Mannion et al).

 Suzanne D. Williams/Unsplash
Source: Suzanne D. Williams/Unsplash

9. The Whistleblowing Process. According to Near and Miceli’s (1985) seminal work, two antecedents must be present for whistleblowing to occur. First, an unethical act must be committed by one or more members of an organization that is witnessed or brought to the attention of the whistleblower. Second, the unethical behavior must be ignored, covered up, or encouraged by those in a position to stop the injustice, therefore contributing to a permissive or toxic culture the whistleblower feels morally compelled to call out, in order to protect those in harm’s way.

Typically holding a benevolent world view and believing in the dignity of people, the whistleblower attempts to follow the chain of command and reports the inconsistencies or violations to her supervisor. It may sound something like this, “The new research does not support the medication regimen used on this patient,” or “Our at-risk youth are being disproportionately targeted for punitive punishment.”

The proclamation of wrongdoing creates a crossroad; one path leads to a critical conversation in an attempt to understand and rectify the wrong and the other path encourages a cover-up or silencing. If path two is taken, and relevant concerns are dismissed without a thorough investigation, the whistleblower must either fall in line with the wrongdoer or speak out. If the whistleblower is positioned as a moral agent, what will follow is the illogical act of civil disobedience, in which she voices her concerns to an external audience. Following this proclamation, she will likely become a prime target on the firing range, suffering a deluge of character assassinations, isolation, and often job loss (Vandekerckhove, 2018).

 Arthur Krijgsman/Pexels
Source: Arthur Krijgsman/Pexels

10. Prosocial Identification With Victims of Abuse, Discrimination, Harassment, or Corruption. Often whistleblowers highlighted in the news reported violations primarily associated with the government, such as, the anonymous CIA agent who filed a whistleblower complaint with the Inspector General of the Intelligence Community in regards to an agreement Trump allegedly made with an unnamed foreign leader. However, less likely to be widely publicized, but more apt to occur, is the whistleblower who feels a deep affinity with the people his organization is charged to serve and thus blows the whistle because that population is being harmed. Tragically, a large body of research documenting such whistleblower complaints is situated in hospitals and schools and deals with the mismanagement and unethical interactions with patients and students (Özdemir, 2013; Perron, Rudge, and Gagnon, 2020).

 Erica Nilsson/Unsplash
Source: Erica Nilsson/Unsplash

11. Environments That Prompt Whistleblowers to Act. When studying schools, Özdemir (2013) found that within cultures of corruption, moral agents, or whistleblowers, rely on two primary tactics: Dissent, when employees refuse to participate in unethical behaviors, and whistleblowing, where employees speak out to stop the harm. Organizations that exhibit entropy, or lack of order or predictability, are at higher risk for corruption, cover-ups, harassment, fraud, and bullying because they tend to lack a steady and predictable moral compass.

According to Perron, Rudge, and Gagnon (2020), such places often create a Sociology of Ignorance, or the purposeful withholding of information from organizational players whose job responsibilities necessitate that knowledge. Examples include withholding salary comparison charts from an administrator in order to cover up discrepancies or burying personnel files that document an employee with a sordid history of sexual harassment.

Whistleblowers working in highly toxic environments, where unethical behavior is commonplace, have a higher likelihood of suffering retaliation, for their efforts to uphold moral standards are in direct opposition to cultural norms. Such communities tend to lack long-term accountability for poor behavior, discourage freedom of speech, reward silence, lack the willingness or skills to deal with “wicked problems,” or are run by a leader with pragmatic ethical standards, meaning her moral code fluctuates depending on what she stands to gain in a given situation (Devine and Maassarani, 2011).

 James Pond/Unsplash
Source: James Pond/Unsplash

12. Workplace Bullying and Retaliation. Blowing the whistle on stealing, fraud, corruption, harassment, or abuse is not the final chapter, but often the beginning of targethood, in which the individual or group of individuals called out for bad behavior launch retaliatory actions, against the whistleblower, whose only crime, according to Devine and Maassarani (2011) was “committing the truth.”

Examples of retaliation include gossip campaigns, fabricated complaints, ostracization, and loss of employment (Perron, Rudge, and Gagnon, 2020). Retribution for speaking out is usually swift, often resulting in the whistleblower’s extended mental suffering which may include insomnia, panic attacks, high blood pressure, weight loss, complex PTSD, and suicidal ideations (Perron, Rudge, and Gagnon, 2020).

Lennane (1996), a psychiatrist and whistleblower, categorizes retaliation into informal and formal reprisal. Informal reprisal may take the form of isolation, denigration, scrutiny, subjection to an impossible workload, and withholding information needed for job performance. Formal reprisal can manifest as job dismissal, demotion, transfer to an undesirable location, the pressure to resign, or the discontinuation of the whistleblower’s position.

Rehg, Miceli, Near, and Van Scotter (2008) found female whistleblowers are subjected to higher levels of retaliation compared to their male counterparts, and whereas men in power positions are often shielded from retaliatory action, women’s power status offers no such buffer.

Retaliation on whistleblowers also impacts co-workers, who sometimes suffer second-hand trauma from witnessing the abuse. Research indicates that a coworker who sees a colleague retaliated against for speaking out is less likely to voice dissent herself, creating a culture that values silence and loyalty over justice and critical conversation.

To inoculate retaliatory cultures, Kenny, Vandekerckhove, and Fotaki (2019) advocate for the creation of “Speak Up Arrangements,” in which channels, outside Human Resources and upper management, are created for employees to anonymously report wrongdoing without the fear of retribution. Studies show Speak Up Arrangments boost employees’ trust and morale and offer long-term benefits in the form of reducing workplace bullying, sexual harassment, and fraud, all which have the potential to result in complex legal battles and high profile reputational damage for organizations called out.

 pine watt/Unsplash
Source: pine watt/Unsplash

13. Whistleblowers Survive by Reframing Their Contributions. Kenny’s (2019) research documents specific strategies whistleblowers can use for survival. She suggests adopting an Affective Recognition lens to reframe whistleblowing from a solitary and singular act to one that is socially constructed and deeply ingrained in organizational culture. This social-cultural lens highlights why otherwise moral individuals may engage in misbehavior, by commission or omission, in an effort to comply with group norms.

Kenny contends that whistleblowers are often punished for carrying out their job responsibilities, such as the oncology nurse, charged to care for patients, who is retaliated against for pointing out a dosing mistake made by an attending physician, or the school administrator, responsible for the wellbeing of high school students, who is pushed out for attempting to change a policy that is detrimental to learning. In such situations, Kenny suggests whistleblowers attempt to find humor in their institution’s obscene and unethical behaviors and avoid going down the rabbit hole of making sense of the nonsensical.

 Ron Smith/Unsplash
Source: Ron Smith/Unsplash

In closing, for whistleblowers to find hope and healing they must work to identify and celebrate the small victories. This winning stance invites them to reclaim their power, naming how their attempts at justice, overtime, ripple out, causing substantial and lasting change. In addition, moral agents must work to shed the negative connotations associated with the term "whistleblower" and be proud of the courage it took to fight armed giants with only a voice and a slingshot (Kenny, 2019). Lastly, instead of allowing the crime of “committing the truth” to traumatize their timelines, whistleblowers must stand tall and allow their actions to emboldened others to fight for truth, equity, and justice (Devine and Maassarani, 2011).

Copyright (2020). Dorothy Courtney Suskind, Ph.D.

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