: Who Are They?
By Peter Rost
Clearing House" --- - Most people wonder how
anyone can become a whistleblower—ever. After all, most
stories of whistleblowers don’t end well. And that’s the
reason most people keep quiet.
It’s called self preservation.
So who are these people who go against the crowd?
In my book “The
Whistleblower” I start out with the following
A study of 233 whistleblowers by Donald Soeken, St.
Elizabeth's Hospital in Washington, DC found that the
average whistleblower was a family man in his forties with a
strong conscience and high moral values. After blowing the
whistle on fraud, 90 percent of the whistleblowers were
fired or demoted, 27 percent faced lawsuits, 26 percent had
to seek psychiatric or physical care, 25 percent suffered
alcohol abuse, 17 percent lost their homes, 15 percent got
divorced, 10 percent attempted suicide, and 8 percent were
bankrupted. But in spite of all this, only 16 percent said
that they wouldn’t blow the whistle again.
One thing I’ve learned—which didn’t exactly come as a
surprise—is that most organizations react the same way to
whistleblowers. The basic response is “kill the messenger.”
And if he goes public, he is all but guaranteed to lose his
standing in the group.
So when I blew the whistle the third time around, at the
Huffington Post, it didn’t surprise me that they immediately
locked me out and stopped me from writing further articles
for them. Of course, one reason I criticized the HuffPo
publicly was because, based on my experience, I didn’t think
doing so quietly would help and I also wanted to test this
hypothesis. It also shouldn’t surprise anyone that they were
forced to implement my recommendations (prohibit employees
from anonymously posting on blogs and remove “reader’s
favorite comments” which I had shown could be abused).
Whistleblowers are often right, however, most organizations
feel it is more important not to be embarrassed than to
correct what is wrong. So the whistleblower is seen as a
bigger threat than the problem they bring up. When Enron
whistleblower Sherron Watkins went to the CEO to save the
company, she didn’t get a pat on the shoulder. Instead, Ken
Lay, the CEO, tried to fire her. This is a typical reaction.
Of course, part of the problem is that corruption often
starts at the top, so when employees try to correct things
they discover that they step on some mighty toes.
So how can someone be crazy enough to blow the whistle?
After all, I wouldn’t recommend for anyone to do what I’ve
done. I guess whistleblowing should have the same disclaimer
they use in car commercials: Closed course, professional
driver, do not try on your own.
But I always believed, that just like a professional driver,
I’d be able to pull this stunt off. I’ve never encountered
anything I couldn’t resolve in the end. We’ll see if that’s
true this time around as well.
This still begs the question, however . . . how can anyone
be crazy enough to be a whistleblower?
Clearly, there are lots of good, conscientious people in
every industry; yet, most of them don’t end up in such an
The reason for that is, I think, that when you work in lower
or middle management, you don’t see the big picture and you
don’t see all the things that are going on. It’s not your
job to deal with those problems. And, at least in my
experience, once you get to a more senior management level,
that’s when suddenly all hell breaks lose. And this is also
the reason management is so careful about whom they promote
to this level. Everyone knows this isn’t just about the best
guy for the job—it is about trust. Management needs to trust
the senior employee to do the “right thing,” and that may be
defined very differently in different companies. Usually it
means quietly solving things, or looking the other way, or
to be able to take a hint when to back off.
But some people don’t take that hint. Are they born
troublemakers, born whistleblowers?
I don’t think so. I think whistleblowers are made, not born.
They simply saw enough and said “enough is enough.” It’s
basically a matter of fairness. Some had no choice. “Join
the conspiracy, act or quit.” Those are the options. Not an
easy choice. And some choose to act. When the company
doesn’t like their action they are branded “whistleblowers.”
Animal experiments support this contention.
You see, animals appear to have an inherent sense of
fairness and justice, just like humans. In experiments with
Capuchins, they proved they knew unfairness when they
Capuchins prefer grapes to cucumbers, and when a scientist
in a test gave a grape to one capuchin and a cucumber to
another, the latter threw it onto the ground and stalked
away rather than give in to this injustice. In another
experiment, these animals learned to trade a plastic pipe
for food. If they saw another capuchin make a trade for a
delicious grape, but were offered a cucumber in exchange for
their own plastic pipe, they were much more likely to refuse
to hand it over in return for the stupid vegetable. Clearly,
they felt it was better to go hungry than to give in to this
unfairness. Many similar experiments have been performed,
showing that animals rather have nothing than something, if
another animal is treated better.
And humans may operate the same way. It may be better to
become a whistleblower and stop an injustice, even though
the cost is much higher than the gain, simply based on this
sense of unfairness.
Many studies in humans have confirmed that this is how we
operate. In one experiment, one person is offered $100 and
then tells his teammate that he will only get $25 out of
that $100, or they’ll both get nothing, and the teammate
usually refuses, and so they both get nothing.
Whistleblowing; it’s about fairness. Doing the right thing;
correct an injustice.
It’s not something people do lightly, because the penalties
in our society are so high—no job, no money, no future, etc.
But deep down it is probably hardwired into our brains.
Just like the response is hardwired. We need cooperation to
survive. Whistleblowing is perceived as a threat to the
group: Kill the wolf that doesn’t acquiesce.
We are all wolfs in a Wolfpack.
Which pack do you want to belong to?