Making an Impact While Supporting Whistleblowers: Five Tips for Public Interest Organizations
On the surface, the goals of public interest organizations and whistleblowers seem to align. However, a deeper dive reveals that unless advocates understand the complexities of blowing the whistle, the combination is filled with ways to go wrong. That’s why it’s so important for members of these organizations to educate themselves on whistleblowing.
Government Accountability Project has helped over 8,000 whistleblowers over our 40-year history. During that time, we’ve worked with numerous public interest organizations to support employees of conscience that help advance social, economic, and environmental justice. Using this experience, we put together Working with Whistleblowers: A Guide for Public Interest Organizations, which can be used as a tool* for advocacy groups interested in partnering with whistleblowers.
Here are five key takeaways from our guide:
1. Make sure you understand the complex definition of a whistleblower before starting to work with an employee.
Put simply, a whistleblower is someone who witnesses wrongdoing in the workplace and decides to speak up rather than stay silent to expose serious violations of public trust.
Legally, the definition gets more complicated based on which law an individual’s disclosure falls under. For example, the Whistleblower Protection Act in the United States defines a whistleblower as someone, who discloses information either internally or externally, that he or she reasonably believes evidences:
- a violation of law, rule or regulation;
- gross mismanagement;
- a gross waste of funds;
- abuse of authority; or
- a substantial and specific danger to public health or safety.
This is just one of many definitions of a whistleblower though, making it important to understand the full legal landscape.
2. Know the risk of reprisal for a whistleblower, as well as your organization’s ability to provide protection.
Regardless of the truthfulness of a whistleblower’s disclosure, employees who speak out often suffer reprisals rather than thanks. Allies that support whistleblowers—including advocacy organizations—are also vulnerable to retaliation. Reprisals against whistleblowers can take a range of forms, including:
- gag orders,
- retaliatory and criminal investigations,
- lawsuits, and more.
When working with a whistleblower, it’s important to be aware of these risks and to be realistic in your ability to prevent them. While many whistleblowers may want to stay anonymous to avoid these challenges, it might not always be the best option. And if they’ve already spoken up internally at their workplace or reached out to your organization, their disclosure will be easier to trace. Never make an unqualified promise of absolute anonymity or protection because you cannot guarantee it.
3. Develop trust with the whistleblower.
An employee takes a huge leap of faith when blowing the whistle. If you’re working closely with a whistleblower, it’s important to develop trust so they feel grounded in a world of strangers, new contexts, and unfamiliar rules.
A few of the ways you can do this are:
- Provide a safe environment for interviews and communications;
- Work with congressional staff who can support oversight efforts and help protect the source; and
- Make the whistleblowers’ protection a visible priority so they feel the relationship is a two-way street.
4. Keep information security top of mind.
If an employee has come to you with information about serious wrongdoing, exercise special care in communicating to ensure that they can use the best and safest ways to disclose information.
Practices that can help protect communications with whistleblowers include:
- Sources should not contact advocacy groups using work related email accounts, computers, or telephones;
- In-person meetings may be preferable;
- Be careful about how you ask for documents and handle electronic documents with care;
- Use Signal or encrypted email for communication and document exchange;
- And more crucial practices, outlined in our full guide.
5. Partner with lawyers who understand the full landscape of whistleblower law.
Last, but certainly not least, make sure you enlist the help of those who specialize in whistleblower law. Information provided by a whistleblower can bolster many of the strategies advocacy organizations use to create change. But before working with or acting on information provided by a whistleblower, consult with a lawyer with whistleblower expertise. Experienced legal counsel will ensure both the whistleblower and your organization have full awareness of rights, risks, and possible strategies to disclose information safely and effectively. In our guide, we provide a comprehensive list of our fellow whistleblower support organizations.
When best practices are followed, whistleblowers and public interest organizations are a force for change. Download your copy of Working with Whistleblowers A Guide for Public Interest Organizations to learn more.
* Disclaimer: This guide is for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice.