Out of the Frying Pan and into the Fire: The Reality of Whistleblowing

Did you hear about the referee that got fired from the NBA?

Turns out he’s a whistleblower. 

Okay, so that was corny. But it’s a good pun to introduce a common misconception: whistleblowers aren’t people who stand around blowing whistles. However, they can get fired.

That’s the problem we’ll be talking about today. If you’re here, you probably saw something at work that you know is wrong and you want to report it… but you’re terrified of what might happen. What if I lose my job? Can the company come after me legally? Will I get sent to Russia?

You’re overwhelmed, scared, and stressed out. Maybe I shouldn’t say anything at all, but then what happens? Will the problem continue if I don’t speak up?

Whistleblowing can have many different outcomes, both good and bad. Sometimes, people who blow the whistle are heroes, exposing corruption and saving lives. Other times, they may be seen as traitors and suffer professionally or personally for speaking out. If you’re thinking about blowing the whistle, it’s important to weigh all the potential consequences before taking any action. We’ll walk through some of them today, but first, let’s clarify: what exactly is whistleblowing?

What exactly is Whistleblowing?

Whistleblowing is a powerful tool that protects workers’ rights and encourages reporting in the workplace. A whistleblowing event occurs when an employee, often called a whistleblower, reports misconduct or illegal activity within their organization or by someone working for the organization. Oversight.gov defines this wrongdoing as “gross mismanagement; gross waste of funds; an abuse of authority; a substantial and specific danger to public health or safety; or a violation of law, rule, or regulation.”

The whistleblowing process allows workers to come forward and stand up for what’s right without fear of retribution or punishment. Whistleblowers make sure that justice prevails, protecting not only those involved in wrongdoing but also those affected by it. In this way, whistleblowing serves the purpose of holding companies accountable and ensuring that safety and fairness remain top priorities in the workplace.

What’s the worst that could happen?

Whistleblowing can be a difficult experience as it often requires courage, strength, and moral fortitude. When it works as intended, whistleblowing typically leads to greater benefits of transparency, justice, and reform in the workplace, potentially deterring future negative behavior from those who may have committed wrongdoing in the past. It can also be professionally rewarding; whistleblowers often get recognition for their courage and honesty, which can lead to greater career opportunities in the future. Additionally, standing up for what is right can provide whistleblowers with a sense of personal satisfaction and pride, boosting their emotional esteem.

On the other hand, whistleblowing can often prove to be a risky venture. In some cases, those who report misconduct may experience illegal retaliation from their employers which violates their workers’ rights. They could be forced to relocate to an undesirable office, be given negative performance reviews, have their pay docked, and be micro-managed at every turn. They could even be terminated from their position, try to find another job elsewhere in the industry, and find themselves blacklisted. There’s also potential for physical danger if someone is blowing the whistle on an organization or powerful person that doesn’t want to be exposed who may try to intimidate them or worse.

On a more personal level, whistleblowers may endure negative social and emotional effects as well. Coworkers and friends could turn on them. They could be ostracized or treated differently by their peers, leading to depression and feelings of isolation. Gaslighting, a type of psychological manipulation that leads you to question your memory and perception, is not unheard of either – a whistleblower could face gaslighting from their supervisors, peers, and themselves. They could face smear campaigns meant to discredit them or even outright bullying. To make matters worse, mental illnesses including paranoia, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder can easily develop as whistleblowers go through the time-consuming and dangerous process of gathering evidence, waiting for an investigation, and avoiding whistleblower retaliation.

To ensure success and minimize risks associated with whistleblowing activities, you should consider consulting with experienced professionals who understand the process and provide support both personally and legally as you navigate this complex journey.

Whistleblowing in action: real-life stories and outcomes

Wells Fargo provides a compelling illustration of whistleblower culture in the present day. In 2013, Wells Fargo employee Bill Bado reported to the Wells Fargo ethics hotline that employees at his branch were engaging in unethical activities, such as opening fake accounts to meet their sales quotas. He was one of many. Rather than being praised for his courage to expose misconduct within the organization, Bado – and the others – became subject to retaliation from Wells Fargo and was swiftly fired.

Despite this, Bado and his peers’ whistleblowing was instrumental in the reconstruction of Wells Fargo’s reporting procedures after the bank’s fraudulent activities were finally exposed in 2016 (resulting in a $185 million fine and the termination of 5,300 employees). Thanks to these whistleblowers coming forward about the illegal retaliation they faced, Wells Fargo was forced to perform a thorough review of all whistleblower cases from 2010-2016, during which some of the reporters received millions of dollars in settlements.

In another case, advertising agency J. Walter Thompson’s chief communications officer Erin Johnson blew the whistle on her CEO, Gustavo Martinez, when he sexually harassed her and made disgustingly racist, horribly anti-Semitic, and dangerously sexist remarks in their New York office. In response, Martinez cut her bonus. She filed a lawsuit over the retaliation and not only was she ostracized by her peers, but she was given “virtually no work to do.”

Undeterred by the negative consequences of speaking out, Johnson’s whistleblowing was incredibly important in bringing light to a serious issue and enacting change within her organization. The independent investigation launched by Johnson’s lawsuit eventually resulted in the firing of her CEO, along with other top executives and creative directors. Her whistleblowing also encouraged other women to come forward and share their experiences of discrimination within the advertising agency.

Finally, the case of Edward Snowden is a resounding example of how whistleblowers can have major impacts. In 2013, Snowden leaked classified information from the National Security Agency to journalists, revealing large-scale surveillance operations by the US government against citizens. Although Snowden has since been charged with espionage and treason for his actions – prompting him to flee to Russia – he has become a vocal advocate for transparency and accountability for governments around the world. His disclosures also sparked widespread debates about privacy rights, mass surveillance techniques, security protocols, and government transparency which resonate today in various countries across the globe.

These examples demonstrate how powerful whistleblowing can be on both an individual and organizational level. Although there are potential risks associated with blowing the whistle on wrongdoing or illegal activity, these stories illustrate how such actions can lead to positive outcomes and help ensure that organizations are held accountable for their actions.

Weigh the pros and cons before taking action

Whistleblowing can be a powerful tool for justice, but clearly, it is not without its risks.

Before taking the brave step of exposing wrongdoing at your workplace, you must take time to examine both its advantages and potential pitfalls. There are important rights that protect whistleblowers from retaliation, but even with those in place, you may face serious repercussions if you go public – including professional and personal challenges.

Even though justice and an ethical workplace depend on whistleblowing, the act needs to be considered seriously before proceeding down a potentially dangerous course. You should weigh both the possible benefits and risks of whistleblowing before taking any action.

Make sure to have the necessary support

If you are a whistleblower in need of support, there are certain resources available to help you. Your lawyer or attorney can provide counsel on how best to proceed and protect yourself from any repercussions. Depending on your situation, the lawyer may even recommend alternative methods such as government programs that offer protections and rights specific to whistleblowers. An attorney may also assist by initiating a claim if you have suffered any illegal treatment or been a victim of injustice as a result of whistleblowing. Knowing what your options are and having a representative by your side will give you the confidence and strength required to carry out your whistleblowing mission.

Ultimately, whistleblowing is a courageous decision – and one that must be taken seriously. It may bring forth positive change if done correctly, but whistleblowers must also prepare for potential repercussions.

With the help of stories from brave individuals who have spoken up for their principles and causes, we can learn more about the costs of whistleblowing and the outcomes these actions could have. No matter your decision, we encourage all those reading to take into consideration the pros and cons before deciding to act as a whistleblower.

If you believe that whistleblowing is something applicable to you, know that there are resources out there providing support during this process. We here at éclat Law urge you to give us a call – whether you need assistance navigating whistleblowing laws or simply just help getting started. Contact us today!