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Thinking About Whistleblowers: Their Motives Vary -- The Boss' Response Does Not

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Recently my friend and co-author, Penn State Professor Matthew Woessner, showed the courage to publicly protest his university's unprecedented decision to impose an Orwellian "wellness" program on employees, including a highly detailed, even degrading, questionnaire.

How degrading? The WebMD survey requires that employees report whether they've undergone colonoscopies, digital rectal exams, or blood stool tests. Employees must reveal if they struggle with stress, depression, or anxiety. Probing their emotional state, the survey requires disclosure of problems with family members, the death of a loved one, divorce/separation, or violence. Those refusing to answer any item face a $1,200 annual fine.

As if it has not had enough controversy, Penn State became the first university in the nation to impose such a paternalistic mandate on its employees. Matthew, an award winning teacher and well-known researcher, is fighting the administration out of principle, arguing that Penn State has no right to blackmail employees to hand over personal data to WebMD. He is the kind of professor I would want my own children to study under.

I wish Matthew well, but given how large institutions, including educational institutions operate, I fear for his future.

Not long ago I got a call from another whistleblower, an old friend who had been unemployed for years and needed a letter of recommendation, which I gladly wrote. My friend, a former public school principal fired for refusing to change student answers on standardized tests to "earn" his boss a bonus, exhausted his unemployment benefits while being turned down for dozens of jobs at public schools valuing solidarity over integrity. It took him three years to reenter his chosen profession.

In contrast, last year the New York Times published Greg Smith's very public letter of resignation from Goldman Sachs. Smith left Goldman Sachs with money in the bank and book royalties to come, pushed by his self-promoting public resignation. After more than a decade at the firm, Smith claimed shock at finding that Goldman put profits above clients, rather like a hit man's horror to hear the Gambino family is a criminal enterprise.

The contrast between the whistleblowers who sought fame like Smith and NSA leaker Edward Snowden, and others like my friends who had it thrust upon them, shows a reality far more complex than the one dimensional media treatments. We're told that whistleblowers are heroes, but my time in government tells me that there are at least four types of whistleblower.

Most common are what career bureaucrats call "low performing whistleblowers," unproductive and often contentious employees who report fictional waste, fraud or abuse to protect themselves by hiding behind the Whistleblower Protection Act, which protects federal whistleblowers from discipline or dismissal.

The second group are megalomaniacs like Greg Smith, Edward Snowden, former National Security Council official Richard Clarke, and the hapless Osbourne Cox, John Malkovich's character in the Coen brothers' black comedy, Burn Before Reading. Having more ego than talent, these folks believe that only they know the truth; their innate superiority gives them carte blanche to profit by trashing their former employers. As in the case of Richard Clarke, megalomaniacs are sometimes right, but never wise.

Third are Machiavellian infighters like FBI Associate Director Mark Felt (aka Deep Throat), who helped blow the cover off the Nixon administration in the Watergate scandal; leaking to undermine bosses he hoped to replace. Of course leaking is far safer than whistleblowing, but the same logic applies: pretending public ethics for personal gain.

Fourth are cornered whistleblowers like Matthew Woessner, my friend the school principal, or Ernie Fitzgerald, the famed Pentagon official who disobeyed orders to lie to Congress about Air Force cost overruns. Cornered whistleblowers do the right thing by bringing unethical practices to light, or by following the law even when the boss says to break it. These public servants were not looking for trouble, but when forced to choose between loyalty and integrity, they did the right thing.

Alas for the cornered, life is not easy. The Air Force fired Ernie Fitzgerald, was forced to rehire him, but ever after treated him as a pariah. I'm hoping that Matthew, who now has thousands of other Penn State employees behind him, is too visible for venal superiors to dispatch in this manner. Only time will tell.

Unfortunately, in the ugly world of bureaucratic politics, sometimes the only thing worse than doing the wrong thing, is doing the right thing.

Robert Maranto ( is the 21st Century Chair in Leadership at the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas, and served in government in the Clinton years.