The Lonely Plight of the Whistleblower

By Elizabeth Whitman

NEW YORK, May 18, 2011 (IPS) – “Few paths are more treacherous than the one that challenges an abuse of power,” warns “A Handbook for Committing the Truth: The Corporate Whistleblower’s Survival Guide” – a primer not only for whistleblowers but for corporate leaders and citizen activists as well, say authors Tom Devine and Tarek Maassarani.

Packed with the pros and cons of different decisions, explanations of laws and their shortcomings, anecdotes – sometimes uplifting, sometimes not – and much practical advice, the “Guide”, published in association with the Government Accountability Project (GAP), offers general information and technical guidance about the safest and most effective methods for exposing corporate wrongdoings.

“Whistleblowers with their insider knowledge are a wild card that can make all the difference,” Devine told IPS.

Preparing for the worst

The “Whistleblower’s Survival Guide” does not maintain any illusions about the difficulties and consequences of “committing the truth”. Potential whistleblowers should not enter the process seeking rewards such as glory or money, because “the deck will be stacked against you no matter how solid your evidence or astute your strategy,” and the repercussions of whistleblowing can be incredibly severe.

According to the guide, “Corporate hierarchies employ intimidation and fear to convince their workers that the power of the organization is stronger than the power of the individual,” and they will often “direct the spotlight at the whistleblower instead of the alleged misconduct.”

As a result, the whistleblower is targeted, sometimes threatened, and the problem he or she tried to address goes unsolved.

“Being a whistleblower is lonely and stressful,” and “it is not uncommon for marriages and other relationships to fall apart in the wake of whistleblowing,” the guide warns.

The book might seem to serve as a deterrent to those considering blowing the whistle, and indeed, Devine says that it is intended to, as whistleblowing is the equivalent of “engaging in professional suicide”.

“The book should serve as a deterrent for those who aren’t prepared to follow through the marathon, the ugly conflicts that come with the territory when they challenge abuses of power,” he told IPS.

Aside from personal consequences that follow whistleblowing, “those who quit in the middle because they weren’t prepared… are actually counterproductive,” he explained.

For those who are prepared to deal with the consequences, the book is a detailed and thorough manual on the processes, options and challenges in whistleblowing. Once one has made the decision, the book explains different choices that a whistleblower will face, such as whether to inform someone internally or whether to use the media, whether to write a letter or speak up in person, as well as information about whistleblowers’ legal rights.

It lays out the nuances, advantages and disadvantages of these options to help whistleblowers make the decisions most effective for their individual situations.

Changing legal and cultural landscapes

The term “whistleblower” does not necessarily have a positive connotation, suggesting betrayal or tattling. Over the past 10 years, however, those associations have begun to improve, thanks to new laws and a shift in society’s perceptions of whistleblowers, particularly after the 2001 Enron scandal.

Legal changes, however, have not always ensured that whistleblowers are fully protected against corporate retaliation.

In 2002, the Sarbanes-Oxley Act (SOX) was passed to prevent “retaliation against those… who challenge ‘cooking the books’ and other concealed misconduct that threaten shareholder investment,” according to the guide.

In reality, however, ridden with different procedural hurdles and “arbitrary barriers”, SOX has not provided what it seemed to promise, and until reforms are passed, “corporate whistleblower law will remain dysfunctional,” states the guide.

Nevertheless, the SOX law was still an improvement, as it ensured that companies or employers who retaliate against whistleblowers “do not get a free ride” and that they have to “spend years enduring the burden of litigation before retaliation will stick.” It also initiated the inclusion of whistleblower protections in other new laws.

The guide is particularly useful in the context of these new laws, because although their “potential implications are extremely significant… this overhaul of the legal landscape is largely unknown,” Devine told IPS.

As a result, the book explains “how to most effectively take advantage of these new laws,” particularly with “the hidden quicksand that’s still out there and can backfire horribly on a whistleblower who is overconfident due to all the legal breakthroughs,” said Devine.

Grounds for optimism

Aside from being a detailed and thorough manual on the processes and challenges of whistleblowing, this guide renders a relatively bleak picture of the existing corporate moral landscape.

“Corporate ingenuity always creates new and unanticipated innovations reflecting creativity’s dark side,” the guide says of the methods that companies will pioneer to “contain and eliminate dissent”.

Still, Devine finds reason to be optimistic, even idealistic, about the situation. “Nothing is more powerful than the truth, if it’s used strategically and if it’s not a secret,” he said. It can “overwhelm conventional authority or money or political power.”

The fact that whistleblowers are standing up for the truth, even if they are not always successful, is grounds for optimism, especially since they often challenge “abuses of power that only can be sustained through secrecy,” Devine added.

“This is a little bit of a manual on how to turn the truth into power without becoming a martyr in the process,” he concluded. (END)

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