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Hear the Lonesome Whistle Blow: Workplace Retaliation

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No one likes a tattle tale. So it should come as no surprise that when someone does report misconduct to their employer, they often find themselves the target of cruel and damaging retaliation. Once commenced, retaliation is rarely limited to one or two vindictive managers and is likely to include close friends and colleagues who often join in shunning, accusing, and sabotaging the worker who blew the whistle and exposed the elephant in the room -- wrongdoing that was previously kept quiet.

In a newly-released report on business ethics, the Ethics Resource Center reports that while misconduct has declined, when it does occur the costs to those who report it are increasing. Retaliation against whistleblowers has risen from 12% in 2007, to 22% in 2011, with the greatest increase in retaliation against those who reported sexual harassment or substance abuse.

Yet we love to romanticize the whistleblower, finding inspiration in their courage and tenacity when we encounter them from the safety of our homes or theaters. But rarely does that admiration extend to the worker beside us, regardless of our labor values.

On screen, the whistleblower will find once loyal friends disappear, their marriage will become strained, and unmistakable retaliation will commence -- usually on par with a telephoned threat to the lives of the children, a dead pet, or something thrown through the window (a rock with a scary note attached, a Molotov cocktail perhaps). The whistleblower is shaken, expresses a momentary desire to turn back, but is then provoked to an even greater determination to bring the truth the light of day. In these films, the hero prevails, whatever dirty deed they revealed is cleaned up and any victims are rewarded, while a shop floor of now joyous co-workers or a camera-studded crowd outside the steps of the courthouse cheers for the brave and victorious whistleblower who comes out smiling.

Sadly, real life follows a different script. In an organization characterized by ethical leadership, when misconduct is reported, it is addressed, swiftly and often informally. Yet in organizations in which leadership is unstable or changing, acts in secrecy, and limits opportunities for advancement (leading those who achieve such positions to be more determined to hang on to them), the potential for retaliation is greater.

"There's nothing management hates more than the corporate office looking into a problem with one employee," writes Phil Porter in Eat or Be Eaten: Jungle Warfare for the Corporate Master Politician, "When they do, the employee is added to the "kill-at-all-cost" list. Every member of management will conspire to snag him, even if it takes a while."

But because rocks are seldom thrown through windows, lives are hardly ever threatened, and co-workers rarely apologize, proving such retaliation is difficult. And perversely, the more severe and blatant the retaliation, the more likely perception will be swayed that it is justified. This is because we like to think that we are immune to such things happening to ourselves -- we are more comfortable believing it would only happen to someone who did something to bring it on.

As a result, in organizations where managers do retaliate, the retribution is likely to rapidly evolve into workplace "mobbing." Even the most humane and caring of workers can be easily swept into a momentum of aggression through gossip, rumors, fear, and opportunism. When this happens, going after the vindictive management that initiated the retaliation may seemingly make sense, but ultimately prove futile as more and more of the workforce joins in viewing the whistleblower as the problem, and not the management.

From the perspective of the whistleblower, however, the problem they present is not their personal problem, as much as it is a problem of the organization. But authoritarian leaders do not view it the same way -- having to address a problem is the problem, and the one who brought the problem to light is the one who is likely to be targeted. In such cultures, the whistleblower will find themselves very much alone.

What can a whistleblower expect in such a situation? According to the report of the Ethics Research Center, retaliation typically includes being kept out of key meetings and decision making, receiving the cold-shoulder from co-workers, being verbally abused by supervisors, and being relocated or demoted. Although these tactics may appear relatively manageable, the damage they do to a person's professional status is huge, particularly because they seem to come from nowhere -- poor performance reviews suddenly appear for the first time, key resources necessary to perform one's job are withdrawn, and an atmosphere of social isolation and damaging gossip rapidly envelops the worker.

Socially isolating a person and threatening their economic base is devastating, and has an enormous impact. But workers are often ill prepared for the breadth and depth of the social response that follows whistle-blowing. As the retaliation shifts from a single manager, to "management" and then to the broader workforce, no matter the prior work record, the whistleblower will likely be represented as mentally unstable, hyper-critical, unwanted, and overly angry. As their anguish and anger grow at the mistreatment -- often including specious investigations that are more targeted to the whistleblower than the initial misconduct alleged - their anguish and anger will reinforce the changing image of the employee as unstable and threatening.

What happens to the original complaint of the whistleblower that triggered the retaliation? According to the Ethics Resource Center, when an organization retaliates against a whistleblower, odds are the complaint will not be fairly investigated, if it is investigated at all. Thirty-nine percent of those who were retaliated against reported that their reports were not even investigated, while of those that were, less than half (47%) considered the investigation fair.

What, then, is the cost to the organization of failing to fairly investigated misconduct when it is reported? Ninety percent considered reporting it to outside agencies, compared to 69% who were not retaliated against. In other words, by failing to fairly address a report of misconduct, the organization faces greater risk of outside scrutiny and higher legal costs than dealing with the matter properly in the first place.

It is up to an organization's leadership to ensure fair and equitable treatment of its workers, not just in word, but in actions. Those who lead by instilling fear and punishment among the workforce are not likely to change their behaviors readily, and laws prohibiting abusive treatment may or may not be effective in the long-run, but surely can't protect the worker from abuse should the laws be flagrantly twisted or violated.

Before blowing any whistle, workers should be cautious and aware. They should understand that not only are existing laws limited in their ability to safeguard the worker and restore any losses, but also that the operative word in organizational cultures is "culture." And that means that there are hierarchies of formal and informal leadership that influence how its members are perceived, and should such leaders go after the whistleblower for dropping a problem at their door, the membership will surely follow.

But when someone does report misconduct, coworkers and future employers should understand that rarely does a worker make such a report with the aim of damaging the organization, but almost always because they care about the organization. Refusing to work with whistleblowers is a severe form of retaliation, whether it takes the form of avoiding them in the workplace, or refusing to consider hiring them once they have left the workplace. Whistleblowers may well prove to be among the most loyal and productive workers any organization can hire.

If you work with a whistleblower in the line of retaliatory fire, let them know you care but will keep your distance if necessary, for their sake as much as yours. But do not gossip about them, and avoid anyone who approaches you with gossip, particularly if it is couched with platitudes such as "I am concerned about so and so." If they were genuinely concerned, they would not be spreading gossip. If a whistleblower has applied for employment with your company, give them serious consideration because they are likely to be loyal, hard working, and adaptable. If nothing else, they are likely to be the last to come to management with problems.

Finally, if you are a whistleblower, or contemplating becoming one, arm yourself with knowledge about workplace mobbing and retaliation. The more you understand how and why coworkers turn against each other and managers abuse their authority when they do retaliate, the better equipped you will be to survive retaliation if it does commence. There won't be any crowds cheering you on when it's all over, so weigh your options carefully and hone your combat skills. You never know when you might find yourself in the line of fire. Survive it if it comes your way.