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Why are Whistleblowers treated so badly?

A whistleblower is a person who exposes wrongdoing within an organization in the hope of stopping it. "Expose" does not necessarily mean contacting the media, it can mean informing one's line manager in confidence.

Whistleblowing is a distinctly risky business when the wrongdoing being reported is either known about and tolerated by, or being done by or is otherwise perceived to benefit the person to whom it is reported. The same is true if the person receiving the report is dependent in some way upon the person presumed to be responsible for or benefitting from the wrongdoing.

If there has been a management decision to, e.g. cut corners and put lives at risk, on the premise that (a) no one will ever find out and (b) it will generate extra revenue, then the people responsible are unlikely to ever want to admit to it. Where a person within the team (or outside of it, but not in a position of authority) expresses the view that the action is wrong in some way, they do not get the support of the rest of the team.

Whistleblowers are treated so badly because there is nothing wrong in reporting malpractice to an appropriate person, but it can lead the wrongdoer(s) to bring about the whistleblower's departure. Without any genuine misconduct as a reason to dismiss, they have to fabricate charges and create a smokescreen to openly damage the whistllower's reputation and through this, subject them to debilitating levels of stress.

Many of the cases I deal with involve a person who has raised concerns that implicate a manager in the organisation, and the routine response is an unprecedented and very serious disciplinary charge, superficially unrelated to the concern raised. Conduct, performance, motive and credibility are all put into doubt. The consequent stress leads to psychological ailments which in turn are exploited as (a) indication of impaired judgment and (b) grounds to dismiss on grounds of ill health.

Management teams and the whistleblower's colleagues routinely close ranks with the wrongdoers for many reasons,  not least of which is a fear of being treated as the whistleblower if seen to support their view. This fear is entirely justified - when this happened to me, one of my subordinates was found to have supported me and he then was subject to superficially unrelated, specious disciplinary charges.

The workplace environment is a strange one, and it is not unlike a domestic environment. Where a person lives with a violent partner, they can escape the violence by doing as they are told, and not complaining. In a workplace where a person's violent tendencies are suppressed only because they have to be seen to be behaving in a civilised manner, the violence comes out in underhand ways, behind closed doors, and by abusing the rules. It is usually tactical and psychological violence rather than physical violence.

It is amazing that businesses can function with this sort of behaviour going on, and they certainly do not function well.  The late Tim Field proposed that in environments where this happens, the source of all dysfunction could be traced to one person; the character of that person is well defined in a book "Snakes in Suits" by Robert Hare & Paul Babiak.

To find out more about whistleblowing see Public Concern at Work

If you are being victimised for raising concerns about malpractice, or if you're an employer wondering what to do about a piece of unpalatable information that's appeared in your midst, contact the author of this article

Tags: whistleblower, whistle , blowing, ethics