Understanding the Issues and Risks
What if you discovered that your company's products were leaking dangerous chemicals into the environment? Top managers knew it was happening, but they were doing nothing to stop it. Would you tell the police or the media to make the issue public?
Here's another scenario: What if you found out that your company's accountants were changing numbers so that it looked as if the organization was doing better than it really was? And what if you discovered that the CEO and other top managers had asked for this? Would you report them, or keep quiet?
Unfortunately, things like this really can happen, and some people are faced with real-life decisions just like these at some point in their careers. Your involvement may start with accidentally discovering something in paperwork, or perhaps hearing a conversation between other people. When it happens, however, you have a difficult choice to make: do you "stay loyal" to the company, stay silent, and stay employed – or do you report the misconduct, and face harassment or firing?
In this article, we'll cover the main aspects of whistleblowing: what it is, and what you need to think about in connection with it. Plus, we'll offer tips on protecting yourself if you have to report a wrongdoing at your company (although you may not be able to protect yourself completely).
What Is Whistleblowing?
Whistleblowing is the act of reporting wrongdoing in an organization to the appropriate authorities. This wrongdoing is a breach of the law, or of some rule of regulation, and is typically systemic – something that is being done with the knowledge and acceptance of responsible, influential people within the organization.
Whistleblowing happens when a worker learns of this illegal activity, and then decides to stop it by "blowing the whistle" on the misconduct to alert others. A few examples of wrongdoings that could lead to whistleblowing are food contamination, violations of workplace safety, fraud, or distribution of defective products that could impact public health or safety.
What You Should Do
If you discover something like this in your organization, then you have a tough path ahead of you, and working out what to do isn't easy. Take yourself through the following process:
Step 1: Check the Facts
Make sure that if you think something is happening, it really is happening. Or, if you believe an illegal event is going to take place, you must be certain it's going to happen. After all, if you blow the whistle and you're wrong to do so, this could be very embarrassing for your organization – and very unpleasant for yourself.
As part of this, talk to a lawyer at an early stage to make sure that the issue really is a problem, that the way that you act is completely correct, and that you behave in a way that is compliant with national law. Given the huge potential issues and costs that you may experience as a result of "blowing the whistle", this investment in good advice should be thoroughly worthwhile.
Also, be extremely careful when you choose whom to talk to during your investigation, and don't break any company confidentiality or data access policies.
Step 2: Gather Evidence
You'll need to gather enough evidence to make your case. In some countries, laws protect whistleblowers from employer retaliation, but only if there's evidence of the wrongdoing. It's essential to have documentation to prove what happened (or what will happen).
Take your lawyer's advice about what you can and can't do to gather information. Depending on what he or she advises, make a copy of all emails associated with this issue and every piece of paper you find. Again depending on your lawyer's advice, keep these copies at home or someplace away from the office. If the worst happens and you're fired, you might not be allowed to clean out your office and take files with you.
Don't use company resources to do this, because you may be vulnerable to charges of theft.
Also, gather evidence to protect your job in case you get fired or have to go to court. If possible and appropriate, copy the following documents:
- Performance evaluations.
- Attendance records.
- Benefit information, such as retirement and healthcare.
- Documentation of work assignments, and which tasks are your responsibility.
- Any handbooks or reports that discuss company rules and policies.
- Letters about your performance (for example, a thank-you letter from management, co-workers, or other staff).
Remember, once you have alleged misconduct, you may lose access to certain files or parts of the building. This can make gathering evidence difficult, so do as much as you can before you say anything. Then, if you're limited in some ways after you report the activity, you'll still have the evidence you need to make your case.
It takes time to gather evidence. So, if you're concerned that something illegal is being planned, but has not yet taken place, you must consider the potential harm if you let the event happen in order to have proof of it. Talk to your lawyer to make sure that you get this right.
Step 3: Decide How to Proceed
Talk to your lawyer to decide how to proceed.
Also, consider your own motivation. If you're looking for glory or financial compensation, then be aware that whistleblowers rarely receive either of these. If you're unhappy with your organization, and you're looking for revenge for a past injury or insult, then remember that you're going to be carefully examined by supervisors, lawyers, and the media. If you're labeled as a dissatisfied worker, then it's unlikely that your case will change the company's policy or behavior.
Step 4: Decide Whom to Tell
After gathering evidence, you may know who is (or will be) involved in the alleged wrongdoing. Now you must decide whom to tell in order to stop it from happening.
There are two directions you can take (your lawyer will help you choose the correct path). First, you can keep the issue internal, within the company. Here you would tell your supervisor, or the manager who's above the highest person involved in the activity. Or, your organization may have a formal policy that names a senior individual to whom workers can report allegedly illegal activities.
Your other option is to go outside the company and tell a third party. Depending on the situation, you could contact the media, an industry regulator, a trade organization, or the police.
If you think you would be treated with respect and taken seriously by your company, then staying internal may be a good option. If you blow the whistle to your boss or another supervisor, and nothing gets done, then keep moving up the corporate ladder.
If, however, other people find out and you feel that retaliation is a real possibility, you may decide that it might be more effective to contact a third party.
Consequences of Whistleblowing
You should realize from the start that there's probably going to be some kind of retaliation against you. This could be something simple and not too serious, like gossip against you – or quite severe, such as losing privileges, or being fired.
There's always a chance that you'll tell the right person about the wrongdoing, and it will get fixed. But based on past cases, most whistleblowers have a hard time. You may experience the following consequences:
- Retaliation – Possible corporate retaliation could include the following:
- Harmful gossip and harassment from co-workers.
- Negative job performance evaluation.
- Withheld wages.
- Loss of benefits or privileges.
- Work that's carefully watched by supervisors.
- Demotion, or denial of promotion.
- Termination or forced retirement.
- Impact on co-workers – Co-workers may experience problems as a result of your blowing the whistle, and you may lose their goodwill as a result.
- Future job search – Other companies might be nervous about hiring a whistleblower. On the other hand, some companies might highly value the fact that you're uncompromising and have strong morals. It all depends on your industry, and what your career plans are. Some whistleblowers have had difficulty finding new jobs.
- Court costs – Understand that you might have to go to court, which can be a long, stressful process. Depending on where you live, there might be whistleblower protection agencies that will take your case free of charge. But you could be responsible for your own court costs, which can be high.
As you see, there are many potential negative consequences to whistleblowing. But many whistleblowers say that, in spite of the stress, they still believe they did the right thing by trying to bring about a positive change.
Whistleblowing is not easy, but for many people, the costs and consequences of ignoring illegal activity may be much higher than what they would face by making the issue public.
Here are a few additional considerations before reporting something:
- Don't gossip around the office about what you saw, or what you think might be happening. Companies want to maintain high morale, and if you tell your co-workers before approaching your boss, that could make your case harder. Keep quiet until you're sure of what's going on.
- Before you approach the person you're telling, know exactly what law has been broken (if there is one), and put your statement in writing. Give one copy of your report to that person, and keep one copy off-site.
- Examine other courses of action before making this public.
Considering whether or not to report a wrongdoing in your company is a major decision, and is one that has all sorts of legal consequences. This is where it's important to get legal advice early on in any process.
Based on whistleblowers' past experience, the likelihood of corporate retaliation is high, so, if you need to move forward, try to protect yourself first. Gather evidence before you present your allegations, and keep important documents off-site.