Whistleblowers: Who Are They, and What Do They Want?

Heroes, villains, patriots, whiners, or money seekers?

Posted Oct 19, 2019

Source: Imilian/Shutterstock

Much has been in the news lately about whistleblowers, usually members of a workforce who have come forward to report allegations of fraud, waste, or abuse to their senior leadership or directly to the courts or the media.

Bruce Sackman, the President of SPI, relates the following: "Early in my career a supervisor once stated to me that it doesn’t make a difference who is making the allegations, or even why they are making it, if the allegations are true."

That’s certainly one way of looking at it; however, having dealt with whistleblowers for more than 40 years, I can tell you that their motivations vary as much as the personalities of the individuals making the allegations.   

I’ve worked with nurses who have risked it all to report co-workers who were stealing narcotics or, worse, intentionally harming patients. I’ve spent hours with pharmaceutical sales reps detailing illegal marketing schemes at their firms, and I’ve sat across from employees who were sick and tired of being compelled to do something they felt was improper or illegal.

However, I have also met with employees who were willing participants in a scheme to defraud until they felt they were about to get caught, or their relationship with their co-conspirator had changed, and they wanted to protect themselves. I’ve interviewed employees so disgruntled and miserable in their work environment that they begin to embellish upon the alleged wrongdoing in a desperate attempt to change what they perceived as abusive management.

Particularly in a multicultural international work environment, behavior acceptable in other cultures may be totally unacceptable in the United States. This can motivate individuals to report what they perceive to be abuse but which is not perceived that way by the offender at all.

Yes, there are those who are financially driven. Qui tam is an abbreviated Latin phrase translated as "[he] who sues in this matter for the king as well as for himself.” These are lawsuits filed by whistleblowers in an attempt to recover a portion of the money recovered from contractors who have committed fraud against the government. Even if the government decides not to pursue the matter, the individual whistleblower can still pursue it on behalf of the government and receive a reward of up to 30 percent of the money recovered. 

David Franklin, a scientist who came forward with allegations of inappropriate marketing of the drug Neurontin, worked with my office for over a year and received $24.6 million after Pfizer pled guilty to violating federal law.  

On occasion, the road taken by whistleblowers can be fraught with danger. A New York Times article, "Nurses Fired for Alleging Misconduct Settle Their Suit" (August 11, 2010), details the story of two nurses who were prosecuted for anonymously blowing the whistle on a physician and not going through official channels. They were exonerated, but the cost of their actions took an incredible toll on them.    

This is no scientific survey, but in my experience, I’ve interviewed slightly more female whistleblowers than males, most of them individuals with significant prior job experience that convinced them that something wrong was going on in their department. Also, slightly more single individuals become whistleblowers than married individuals who might fear that they have more to lose if they get fired over the episode.   

Many whistleblowers struggle for months and even years before coming forward. No one wants to be painted as a troublemaker that “can’t get along."  

When a whistleblower presents himself or herself, we treat that person with the utmost respect and work hard to protect their identity and career. But we also carefully evaluate their motives as well as the information provided to make certain we are just as fair to the people being charged with wrongdoing.