Transformations through the Four Phases of Whistleblowing (Part 3)
The retaliation that usually follows a disclosure of suspected wrongdoing is the foundation of the whistleblower myth. Despite coming after the whistleblower’s decision to reveal the misdeed, retaliation serves to confirm the individual’s courage. Without retaliation, the battle of good and evil would be a tepid affair, not mythic. The enduring but painful result of retaliation is a transformation of the whistleblower’s relationship with others and her concept of herself.
Exclusion is a conventional retaliation against whistleblowers because it is such a common tactic in all groups. The one who is so disloyal as to criticize and disclose the group’s secrets deserves the ostracism that she receives. The company chooses among different ways to cut her out. She may be excluded from meetings she previously attended. She may be reassigned to a location without resources or a job without responsibilities. Many whistleblowers are suspended or placed on leave, marking them as damaged and dangerous. Then, of course, many are fired.
In addition to simply wanting to hurt the whistleblower, the organization hopes to keep her from information that she might use against the company and to encourage her to quit. The company can accomplish its objective nearly without penalty. HomeFirst’s attorney assured its CEO Niklaus that keeping me out of meetings and reducing my responsibilities were nothing I could sue them for as long as my pay and title were left unchanged.
The power of ostracism is not just its deniability by the perpetrator. Struck to her social core, the target can find the experience painful and distressing. For six years I had enjoyed working with HomeFirst’s Chief Program Officer, who had reported to me for several months after I first was hired as CFO; we had collaborated, joked, and griped together most mornings and evenings. When she closed the door as I tried to enter the CEO’s office for our regular Monday executive group meeting, I was startled and hurt. To see the three women gathered together, glancing at my head in the doorway, and to be told by the CEO to leave because I was not needed – my old work-buddy connections turned acrid.
Irritation and distrust that were spawned in the earlier phases of whistleblowing grew and spread to other relations. When it came time for me to search for another job, I expected other companies to treat me as tainted and I expected I would find them stained by dishonesty. I anticipated and found instances of dishonesty in the nonprofits where I volunteered. It was everywhere.
Most of us experience betrayal in our whistleblowing projects – by our employers, others at the company who failed to support us, friends and family who let us down, government agencies that fail to enforce laws we claim our employers violated, our attorneys, and news media. We experience betrayals in other parts of our lives – sometimes marriages fail, other family members become estranged, career dreams or health fail us – but we chose the whistleblower life after sensing the danger. Like the others, betrayals that arise from our whistleblowing mark, and possibly embitter, us.
The whistleblower senses that her friends are different after they learn she was fired for blowing the whistle. They may indeed view her in a new light after she betrays her company and forsakes her responsibility to hold a job. Or they may simply tire of her assumed status as whistleblower.
Not only does whistleblowing, especially in this fourth phase, change the individual’s relationships with others, it changes her conception of herself. To the extent that she self-identifies as a whistleblower, she buys into the role’s mythic qualities. She may claim that her exalted professional obligations gave her no choice, she was the one who brought integrity to the situation, she had to tell the truth, she was devoted to the country’s guiding principles, she righted a great wrong, or she protected those who could not protect themselves. Loath to be called a hero because she was just doing her job, she is open to being a Time “Person of the Year”.
If she defeats her attacker, in either court or media coverage, she can find vindication in her role. If she loses, she may – possibly should – reassess whether she honestly held those ideals or whether baser, less appealing reasons were also at play. That reassessment can take years: only after 18 years did Robert Purcell lose the final appeal in his suit against the pump manufacturer he accused of making illegal foreign payments. Resolution of this, the longest-running whistleblower case, was rigged, he concluded.
Maybe I am envious of those with high-blown motives, or maybe with the benefit of distance from the misdeeds and disclosures, I find my own noble motives less convincing. At the time, I could point to my professional standards, personal integrity, desire to tell the truth, and wish to protect people who could not protect themselves. My supposed rationales have not weathered well in time, and they no longer press for action against the still uncorrected wrongs.
Over the years of my whistleblowing project, I changed again. The passion and anger have dissipated, leaving me more analytical in my critiques and more skeptical of claims by companies and government agencies that they are ethical and can be trusted. On good days, I focus on a smaller circle of family and the people I meet.
Whistleblowing in my narrative is not simply a battle of right against wrong although legality and ethics provide a field for the contest. The alleged wrongdoer acts selfishly and not as a result of a moral miscalculation. The whistleblower acts in response to a more powerful entity that disregards her interests in favor of its own. She reasserts her autonomy in the context of certain established social or legal mores. Whether or not she does so successfully, she is human, not mythic.
 Ethics Resource Center. National Business Ethics Survey of the U.S. Workforce. 2014
 For example, Andrew Barcia
 For example, Sean Higgins
 Williams, Kipling, D. Ostracism: The Power of Silence. New York: The Guilford Press. 2001.
 For example, Jennifer Denk
 For example, James Holzrichter
 For example, Glenda Martin
 Cynthia Cooper, formerly of WorldCom