Rick Piltz and Kenneth Kendrick don’t regret going public with information about wrongdoing they encountered in their jobs. After all, it was the right thing to do. But both wish they had been better prepared to enter the world of whistleblowing, where employer retaliation is part of the game.
“What I saw was people dying, so I had no choice,” said Kendrick, who blew the whistle on food safety problems linked to a salmonella outbreak that killed at least nine people. But “I didn’t go about it the right way, I admit that,” he added.
Kendrick and Piltz, who publicized government censorship of climate science reports, spoke in late March at IU Bloomington and IUPUI as part of the Government Accountability Project’s American Whistleblower Tour. The Poynter Center and several IU academic departments and programs sponsored their visit.
A whistleblower is an employee who discloses evidence of what he or she considers illegal, fraudulent or abusive practices in the workplace, including practices that can endanger public health or safety. They may report what they know to managers or other internal sources — or, if that doesn’t work, they may go outside, to government regulators or news media.
Janet Near, professor and Dale M. Coleman Chair of Management in the Kelley School of Business, suggested bringing the American Whistleblower Tour to IU after seeing it last year at Seattle University. Near, who writes and teaches about whistleblowing, said one goal was to prepare students for what to do if they encounter wrongdoing in their future employment.
“What really struck me, when I saw the tour, was that the audience seemed surprised that whistleblowers often suffer retaliation and find it a difficult spot to be in,” she said. “I thought this was information that would be valuable to our students. I talk about it in class, but there’s nothing like hearing about it from the people who experienced it.”
Near said there is little legal support for whistleblowers, even if they are in the right. Federal employees have some protection, but private-sector workers are subject to state laws, which vary widely.
“In fact the First Amendment right to free speech ends at the workplace,” she said. “If you work for a private employer, not for the federal government, you probably have very little protection.”
That was Kendrick’s experience. He complained in 2006 about unsanitary practices at a Peanut Corp. of America plant in Texas where he worked as an assistant manager, but regulators ignored his concerns. When the company’s Georgia plant was linked to the salmonella outbreak three years later, he went to the news media to show the problems weren’t limited to one facility.
But Kendrick went public before he developed a support network or enlisted the help of the Government Accountability Project. He said publicity about his revelations got him fired from his new job with a different company, and he has since had trouble finding work that pays more than $9 an hour.
The 2011 Food Safety and Modernization Act added federal protection for employees in food industries, but that was too late to help Kendrick. In February 2013, federal prosecutors filed charges against the former owner and several employees of Peanut Corp. of America over the salmonella outbreak.
Like Kendrick, Rick Piltz said whistleblowing was the only ethical choice he could make. “I felt, existentially, like I didn’t have an alternative,” he said.
Piltz quit a senior position with the U.S. Global Change Research Program in 2005 to protest high-level interference with the editing and dissemination of climate science information.
He told the IU audience how the chief of staff for the White House Council on Environmental Quality, a former energy lobbyist, would hand-edit reports, deleting references to the ecological impact of climate change and adding passages that exaggerated the uncertainty of climate-related findings.
“The office I was in was caught between the world of science, on the one hand, and the White House handlers, on the other,” he said.
Piltz documented the interference and shared the information with reporters. After he left his job, The New York Times carried a front-page story on the skewing of climate reports.
“I got off fairly easy compared to a lot of whistleblowers,” said Piltz, who now directs the Climate Science Watch initiative for the Government Accountability Project. “All it cost me was a lot of money — I basically didn’t have any income for the next year.”
His advice for would-be whistleblowers: “Don’t be rash and reckless. You’re doing something radical, but do it prudently. Be prepared to deal with the situation you’re in.”
Dana Gold, senior fellow with the Government Accountability Project and director of the American Whistleblower Tour, said Kendrick and Piltz were unusual for having the courage to speak up. Most employees who witness wrongdoing, she said, keep quiet.
Typically, she said, people who blow the whistle “just think they’re doing their job, and all of a sudden their world — and their job, which was incredibly important to them — is turned upside down.”
Near said whistleblowers perform a valuable service, not only in protecting the public but by safeguarding their employers from potential liability for wrongdoing.
“Organizations are just like people,” she said. “They do wrong things all the time. When that happens, there needs to be a mechanism for trying to stop the wrongdoing. Whistleblowers can be an effective tool, provided they are protected and managers respond by taking action and trying to change things.”