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How to blow the whistle on your employer without wrecking your career

3 min read

Modern Money

Tom Devine is the author of “The Corporate Whistleblower’s Survival Guide.” He has assisted whistle-blowers in thousands of cases over the past two decades and is currently the legal director of the Government Accountability Project. SmartBrief recently asked Devine some questions about the legal and corporate landscape surrounding whistle-blowers.

What are some tactics that companies use to silence whistle-blowers?

There are dozens of tactics that corporations use to neutralize whistle-blowers. The most blunt of these involve direct threats or job termination. Sometimes corporations indirectly remove whistle-blowers from their jobs through a “reorganization,” or make whistle-blowers responsible for the solving the source of the complaint but don’t give them the necessary authority or resources to actually accomplish anything. These types of initiatives can drag on for years. Corporations also try to shift the spotlight from the message to the messenger through public humiliation, or by painting the whistle-blower as nothing more than a disgruntled employee.

Are the relatively few whistle-blowing cases that make headlines just the tip of the iceberg?

The “silent majority” always will be a fact of life. A 2010 Ethics Resource Center report found that while 50% of corporate employees witness significant misconduct on the job, roughly 40% do not act on their knowledge. Only 4% break institutional ranks completely and go outside the corporation. However, studies also consistently demonstrate that two barriers are the primary reason those who witness fraud, waste and abuse remain “silent observers”: Most frequently the cause is their belief that bearing witness will not make a difference; fear of retaliation is a strong second.

Are there any seemingly minor mistakes whistle-blowers commonly make that end up having major repercussions?

Some common mistakes are the failure to consult with loved ones affected by the decision or to carefully test the water for solidarity and support among peers. Whistle-blowers also often don’t give their company a chance to do the right thing before breaking ranks, which can help the company sustain plausible deniability when the case goes to court.

When securing evidence of a company’s misconduct, a whistle-blower should seek advice from knowledgeable counsel to avoid charges of stealing company property. Finally, whistle-blowers often have trouble staying on the offensive with a well-thought out strategy after initially blowing the whistle.

Is there a “point of no return” when it comes to making the decision about whether to become a whistle-blower?

A “point of no return” for making the personal choice to risk retaliation is when employees realize that they cannot accept silent passivity and still be at peace with themselves. In terms of incurring retaliation, the point of no return has been reached when an organization perceives that the employee is a whistle-blower, who constitutes a threat to the company or to individuals with the power to punish.