January 09, 2007

Recognizing Retaliation: The Risks and Costs of Whistleblowing

If you plan to challenge the agency or corporation [or university] that employs you, you should know the tactics of retaliation most often used against whistleblowers.

Spotlight the Whistleblowers
This common retaliatory strategy seeks to make the whistleblower, instead of his or her message, the issue: employers will try to create smokescreens by attacking the source's motives, credibility, professional competence, or virtually anything else that will work to cloud the issues s/he has raised.

Manufacture a Poor Record
Employers occasionally spend months or years building a record to brand a whistleblower as a chronic problem employee. To lay the groundwork for termination, employers may begin to compile memoranda about any incident, real or contrived, that conveys inadequate or problematic performance; whistleblowers who formerly received sterling performance evaluations may begin to receive poor ratings from supervisors.

Threaten Them into Silence
This tactic is commonly reflected in statements such as, "You'll never work again in this town/industry/agency. . ." Threats can also be indirect: employers may issue gag orders, for example, forbidding the whistleblower from speaking out under threat of termination.

Isolate or Humiliate Them
Another retaliation technique is to make an example of the whistleblower by separating him or her from colleagues. This may remove him or her from access to information necessary to effectively blow the whistle. Employers also may exercise the bureaucratic equivalent of placing a whistleblower in the public stocks: a top manager may be reassigned to tasks such as sweeping the floors or counting the rolls of toilet paper in the bathroom. Often this tactic is combined with measures to strip the whistleblower of his or her duties, sometimes to facilitate subsequent termination.

Set Them Up for Failure
Perhaps as common as the retaliatory tactic of isolating or humiliating whistleblowers by stripping them of their duties is its converse-overloading them with unmanageable work. This involves assigning a whistleblower responsibilities and then making it impossible to fulfill them. One approach is to withdraw the research privileges, data access, or subordinate staff necessary for a whistleblower to perform the job. Another is to put the whistleblower on a pedestal of cards-to appoint him or her to solve the problem s/he has exposed, and then refuse to provide the resources or authority to follow through.

Prosecute Them
The longstanding threat to attack whistleblowers for "stealing" the evidence used to expose misconduct is becoming more serious, particularly for private property that is evidence of illegality. Government workers even have been threatened with prosecution under a McCarthy-era statute for being "disloyal" to the United States, after they made disclosures to or participated in meetings with environmental groups involved in lawsuits challenging illegal government activity. Until adoption of an anti-gag statute, passed annually in appropriations legislation since 1987, workers with security clearances risked prosecution unless they obtained advance permission before blowing the whistle (even on information that was not marked as classified), effectively waiving their constitutional rights.

Eliminate Their Jobs or Paralyze Their Careers
A common tactic is to lay off whistleblowers even as the company or agency is hiring new staff. Employers may "reorganize" whistleblowers out of jobs or into marginal positions. Another retaliation technique is to deep-freeze the careers of those who manage to thwart termination and hold on to their jobs: employers may simply deny all requests for promotion or transfer. Sometimes it is not enough merely to fire or make whistleblowers rot in their jobs. The goal is to make sure they "will never work again" in their fields by blacklisting them: bad references for future job prospects are common.

From: Alaska Whistleblowers Resource Guide

Whistleblowers’ concern about retaliation not without justification, Virginia Tech sociologist’s study shows

...Rothschild, Professor of sociology at Virginia Tech, did an eight-year study, conducting indepth interviews with 300 whistleblowers and more than 200 surveys of people who observed wrongdoing but chose to remain silent. She found that 69 percent were fired as a result of exposing wrongdoing, even when they only reported it to higher ups within their own employer’s organization. Of those who left their organization to report misconduct to outside authorities, more than 80 percent were fired.

Rothschild, who has published five academic articles on her studies, found in many cases that the moment senior management realized an individual might blow the whistle, “they began a race to discredit the would-be whistleblower before the whistleblower could discredit them.” In the battle for vindication, and for their jobs, whistleblowers seldom emerged unscathed. In 84 percent of her cases, former whistleblowers said they became depressed and could no longer trust the managers of organizations. In 53 percent of her cases, the whistleblowers suffered deterioration even in their family relations.

Indeed, Rothschild says, statistical analysis of the data found that the larger and more systemic the misconduct reported by the whistleblower, the more swift and severe were the reprisals. Neither gender, nor race, nor age, nor level of educational attainment, nor years on the job could insulate a whistleblower from retaliation.

Why do people take these personal risks? Rothschild found that 79 percent of her whistleblowers were stirred to action by their values. “Sometimes they said that they got their sense of right and wrong from the codes of professional ethics embedded in their various occupations; sometimes they attributed their moral compass to religious upbringing or family teaching; but in nearly all cases, they said they were trying to do ‘the right thing’,” Rothschild says. “Of the remaining ones, 16 percent said that their whistleblowing had been defensive: they were afraid that they would be blamed for the misconduct of others if they did not report it, and 5 percent said that they really weren’t sure why they had spoken up.”

Many organizational factors lay the groundwork for whistleblowing, Rothschild says. She found that the employee is most likely to blow the whistle when he or she observes the same misconduct many times and comes to view the employer as immoral and the senior managers as non-democratic and probably complicit in the wrongdoing...


Anonymous said...

Immoral, non democratic and cooperating are the right terms

Anonymous said...

Under 'Prosecute Them':
It is possible to sue on the basis of 'liability'; consequences to disclosure

Anonymous said...

I suffered a recently terrible experience from a senior tenure faculty using people nontenured at the department. i am still under medication. the most hurting thing for me was the silence of other tenure faculty professors who know the situation and this faculty person in particular.

Anonymous said...

I have observed over several years workplace bullying, harassment and retaliation of a junior female faculty member by the department head at my Institution, which prides itself as being a "flagship" (the question is only for what exactly). I am thoroughly disgusted. Notably, this was not a single incidence of misconduct at this department. Additional incidences included sexual harassment, with female employees being offered money for sexual favors at the working place, during working hours. One courageous female whom I much respect, mustered the strength and reported her case (she was cornered in an office and offered money to show her breasts). She went to the said department head (her line manager) and filed an official complaint. As it turned out later, this complaint simply disappeared in the drawer of the above department head and never reached headquarters. The perpetrator was never held responsible. Disgusting.
I have also observed the above mentioned junior female faculty going through all official paths at this Institution to obtain satisfaction, to no avail. All internal instruments (HR, Ombudsperson etc) simply capitulated before the stubborn and unilateral refusal of this department head to participate in seeking a resolution to the conflict. To this day the department head failed to apologize for his conduct which is a disgrace to the department and the Institution as a whole.
Eventually, the complaint was presented to the Director of the Institution, whose simple comment was: "Forget it.". This is scandalous.
I have also observed how little support a colleague can offer inside the system to help. I have for several reasons outspokenly supported this junior female colleague, with no other result then a major and terminal falling out with the department head (which I could not care less about), who attempted (and failed) to turn on me as well ('failed' because, terrible as this is as it confirms stereotypes, I am male, have a loud voice and weigh around 30-40 kilos more than said department head, which appears to intimidate and restrain him).
This junior female faculty is soon leaving the department for a prestiguous senior faculty post (in spite of what she went through, chapeau !). I hope and trust she will sue this department head for what he did to her, shame on him.