whistleThere’s a story hidden behind each revelation of corporate corruption and greed, each unearthing of a political scandal, each discrediting of a sports star or professional impersonator. It’s the story of a whistle-blower, the individuals who, for a variety of reasons, altruistic or vindicting or simply mischievous, bring to the attention of media and regulatory authorities the wrong-doing of people in power. In many cases they bite the hand that feeds them.

To understand the motivation for whistle-blowers, we first need to understand the motivation of the people who commit the crimes in the first place. In some cases, like Enron, the motive is greed, coupled with a feeling of invincibility. In other cases, like Watergate, the motive is psychopathy. In still others, it’s the thirst for power, fame or wealth that is unattainable by legitimate means. These are not simple crimes, and the perpetrators are careful not to, and convinced they won’t, be caught.

Every such crime has victims — those that are defrauded or whose investments are rendered worthless, those whose lives are ruined by unlawful persecution or by charlatans, those whose rightful claim to success or stardom is stolen by cheaters. What’s interesting is that the whistle-blowers are often neither the victims of the crime, nor the people whose job it is to prevent or detect such crimes. Often they are altruists who become aware of what appears to be criminal activity, and who can’t be discouraged, fooled, intimidated or bought off. Often they are low in the corporate, political or sports hierarchy, but unlike computer hackers, disinterested in being heroes or fifteen minutes of fame or notoriety. Often they are just doing what they think is the right thing, with no personal axe to grind with the perpetrators.

Are they heroes or are they fools? A recent story in Salon by Eric Boehlert, The Betrayal of the Whistle-Blowers suggests the legal system is stacked against them, and that their lives are more likely to be ruined than advanced by their actions. Here are quotes from two of them:

“What I have learned is, don’t do the right thing — don’t try to protect the American people when you see that they are in danger, because the law won’t protect you,” says Bogdan Dzakovic, a whistle-blower within the FAA who tried to air warnings about lax airline security years before the 9/11 attacks. He considers himself lucky: He’s still got a job with the FAA and collects a government paycheck. But he spends his time doing menial tasks. “My career is over,” he says.

Looking back on his decision to blow the whistle, [Richard] Levernier, [a tester of safety and security at nuclear facilities with 33 years of federal service before he demanded the DOE stop ignoring the huge exposure of these facilities to sabotage], has nothing but regrets: “Given my experience, I would not do it again, even though I truly believe it was the right thing to do. DOE’s inappropriate removal of my security clearance has ruined my career and life.”

Over the past few weeks, I’ve asked several of the business leaders I know how they think their firm would deal with a whistle-blower exposing major scandal or fraud or negligence in their companies. Their answers were ambivalent: One the one hand they would want a major crime exposed, no matter the consequences, but on the other hand they believe controls in their organizations are strong enough to prevent or detect such crimes, and would therefore be highly skeptical of, even antagonistic to,  a whistle-blower who made major allegations that challenged or shattered those beliefs.

So what should a smart whistle-blower do? I’ve done a bit of work in forensics during my career, and it seems to me that as long as you have no desire for personal glory or financial reward for blowing the whistle, you can be successful if you follow these four rules of thumb (and self-preservation):

  1. Never reveal your true identity. Use at least one go-between to provide the information to the media and authorities. Deep Throat understood this. Anonymity makes it harder to blow the whistle credibly, but protects you from the very high risk that either you’re wrong, and there is no crime, or that you won’t be believed, or will be scapegoated even if you’re proven right. There’s a reason why the totally anonymous Crime Stoppers and TIPS programs are so successful, despite the inevitable ‘false positives’.
  2. Suggest where the bodies are probably buried, but don’t dig them up yourself. The real investigators — police, auditors, regulators — are more than willing to do the digging, successful or no, if there’s credible suspicion. That’s what they’re paid for. You don’t want to be Geraldo opening an empty vault on live television. You want to be the coach sending the syringe with the new steroid to the US Anti-Doping Agency.
  3. Do your own research, but only within the law and within your authority. For every Erin Brockovich there are many whistle-blowers who achieved comparable results, less spectacularly, but without anywhere near the risk. Neither the media nor investigative agencies will do all the work for you — you need to do enough work to provide them with a smoking gun. That may take some time, patience, perseverence, level-headedness or even luck, but mostly it’s just legal, hard, work. If the media or agency that you or your go-between approach says you don’t have enough to go on, don’t get discouraged or mad — ask what else they need and go get it, legally.
  4. Document everything. Everything.

If you want to learn more, the Government Accountability Project has a great site on whistle-blowing. Read their ‘How to Blow the Whistle’ page especially. The National Whistleblower Center also has excellent news and resources on the subject, including up to date reviews of current legislation and the protection it does (and doesn’t) offer. I’d suggest you also Google ‘whistle-blower’ and read some personal stories of what some individuals have been through, and their first-hand advice. Perhaps because of the potential stigma of subversiveness that whistle-blowing carries with it, and the loneliness and isolation it can bring, the Internet has a lot of ‘self-help’ type groups and sites to offer a life-line for whistle-blowers when the struggle against power seems hopeless.

There’s an old expression ‘No guts, no glory’. The correct expression for whistle-blowers should be ‘Lots of guts, calculated risk, no glory’.  If that appeals to you, your Tarot card is The Hanged Man, and you might just have what it takes to be a whistle-blower. Now, more than ever before, we need you.

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  1. Nui says:

    This is a topic I would like to email a friend, but just the topic, don’t want to swamp him off blogs totally. Is there an easy way to do it off your page? You have a great collections of ideas, but of such a diverse range, being able to slot them off to the right people in certain areas would be helpful. Thanks.

  2. Nui says:

    Sorry about the double posting, the thing is that there is no way of knowing whether it gets sent off. You’re able to delete one off right?

  3. Dave Pollard says:

    Nui: Alas in Radio authors have no editing privileges over their own blog’s comments, strange as that may seem. Best way to send a single post to someone is to click on the permalink at the bottom, then cut and paste the resultant unique URL (which links to the single post only) into your e-mail as a link. Alternatively you can highlight, cut and paste the entire post (including the graphic if you want) into an e-mail message — most e-mail software will keep the hotlinks and formatting intact.

  4. Rori says:

    Excellent entry. It has given me a lot to think about.

  5. O RLY YA RLY says:

    Of course, some good regulation to protect these people and their careers would be nice.

  6. Fiona says:

    Regulation is unlikely as it would not be beneficial for the powerful offenders.I have been a small-scale whistle-blower over my career, losing many jobs in the process. I can testify that most people detest a whistle-blower and that it isn’t usually worth it. I read the how-to points with interest.

  7. Life Tenant says:

    Excellent post. Thank you.

  8. Tawcan says:

    Excellent post.

Comments are closed.