What is a Whistleblower?

A common legal definition of a whistleblower is someone, typically an employee, who discloses information, either internally (to managers, organizational hotlines, etc.) or externally (to lawmakers, regulators, the media, watchdog organizations, etc.), 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 definition captures two key points about whistleblowers. First, whistleblowers typically are current or former employees with direct, credible information about wrongdoing that they became aware of while on the job. Second, the concerns are serious and their disclosures reveal changes that must be made according to the law or in protection of the public interest.

Myths About Whistleblowing

Cultural biases, combined with the natural resistance from within organizations to those who challenge the practices of their employers, have led to several common misperceptions about whistleblowers. Our experience working with thousands of employees of conscience refutes these beliefs with several important truths.

  • Myth #1: Whistleblowing is a crime.

    FACT: Disclosing evidence of wrongdoing is not a crime. It is a legally protected right. The aggressive prosecution of intelligence community employees who have released classified information to expose illegal acts by the government and abuses of its authority has fueled a widespread belief that whistleblowing is a crime. It’s not.Whether or not you agree with the actions taken by Edward Snowden or Chelsea Manning, national security employees who have released classified information dominate the public narrative about whistleblowing. Like Daniel Ellsberg releasing the Pentagon Papers, these individuals were whistleblowers who, because the government did not have appropriate policies in place to allow intelligence employees and contractors to disclose important information, chose to commit a possible crime—revealing clearly marked classified documents—in order to report what they consider far more significant crimes.Intelligence whistleblowers are unique, as they have very few legal protections and immense vulnerabilities. Most whistleblowers are not forced to risk breaking the law by disclosing classified information to expose wrongdoing because only a small percentage of whistleblowers work in the intelligence community.As a rule, unless public release is barred by statute, whistleblowers who disclose evidence of wrongdoing are engaging in a legally-protected activity. Most whistleblowers disclose information about financial fraud, public health or consumer safety threats, environmental dangers, or other misconduct—information that is not classified. They are not operating in a national security context and have legal rights to report wrongdoing. In fact, since 1978, there has been a unanimous, bipartisan legislative mandate for every whistleblower law enacted in the United States to encourage disclosures of serious concerns.

  • Myth #2: Whistleblowers are too quick to run to the press with their grievances.

    FACT: Almost all whistleblowers raise concerns internally first. First, it is important to note that employees who raise serious concerns internally to managers or through other internal channels are considered whistleblowers under nearly all whistleblower protection laws.The vast majority of whistleblowers—over 95 percent—try to solve the problem internally first. Most employees have faith that raising legitimate concerns with their supervisors, an ombudsman, or through another internal mechanism, will resolve the issue. Some employees spend months diligently attempting to achieve corrective action in-house. Typically, it is only after attempts to address a problem are ignored or whistleblowers face retaliation that they decide to “blow the whistle” outside of the organization.

  • Myth #3: Many whistleblowers are in it for the money.

    FACT: Most whistleblowers are motivated by a strong sense of professional, civic, ethical, and/or legal duty influenced by the seriousness of the misconduct or degree of harm. When employees speak up, it is most often because they feel they are just doing their job.They speak out because they have witnessed misconduct they feel must be addressed. Whether it is dangerous safety problems at nuclear weapons facilities, prescription drugs that should be recalled because they are causing deaths, or gross waste of taxpayer dollars on unnecessary defense contracts, whistleblowers generally just want to protect the public.Some whistleblower laws, like the False Claims Act and the Dodd-Frank Act, offer whistleblowers a percentage of the portion of money recovered as an incentive for reporting. While these laws have been successful in encouraging reports of fraud, the chances of winning an award very small. The Whistleblower Protection Act for federal employees and most non-financial whistleblower protection laws do not have award provisions.In our experience, most employees who feel compelled to speak out about wrongdoing explain that they had to act in order to remain true to themselves. As one explained, “I have to keep looking at myself in the mirror.”

Survival Tips

Thinking About Blowing the Whistle?

Deciding to blow the whistle on misconduct requires an understanding of the potential risks. In order to improve your chances of successfully addressing the problem while minimizing the possibility of reprisal, ask yourself these questions first.

If these questions show that disclosure is the right choice for you, we thank you for your bravery and are here to help guide you through the process if you need it.

How to Blow the Whistle Safely

Consult and Plan

  • Consult your loved ones. Consider the impact on family members and friends should retaliation occur.
  • Get legal help early on. You need a lawyer, especially one versed in whistleblower law. Government Accountability Project can provide this or help you find a lawyer.
  • Make a plan. Decide whether and when to blow the whistle internally or externally. When does it make sense to give up on internal channels? What documents, if any should be shared with whom? Try to predict how those in the agency or department will react and respond to a disclosure. Develop back up employment options and check for skeletons in your closet in case of a smear campaign.

Build Allies

  • If possible, test the waters for support among your colleagues through strategic but casual questioning and discussions. Solidarity can make a tremendous difference in preventing retaliation, but make sure you don’t expose yourself. Stay on good terms with people who could potentially be witnesses or allies.
  • Consider working from within the system. Challenges to institutions often are not taken seriously unless you can prove that you provided the proper authorities with the opportunity to correct the problem, but they chose not to do so. Be careful that your attempt to work within the system does not sound the alarm and trigger a cover-up or reprisal.
  • If raising the issue casually doesn’t work, you should consider officially raising the issue in writing, clearly stating what is wrong and your position on the matter, which could protect your credibility later on. Again, be careful and don’t protest so much within the system that you will face retaliation.
  • Network outside of your job, with elected officials, journalists, and activists who might be able to help you.
  • Before you begin working with a reporter or an advocacy group, negotiate the scope of what you’re willing to disclose, whether you need anonymity, and any other protections or concerns. It is easier for everyone to be clear on the rules from the beginning.
  • Give the authorities assigned to investigate your disclosures a chance, even if you don’t trust them. It helps to try to operate in good faith, and you may poison the well if you make it clear you distrust anyone associated with your employer.

Proceed with Caution

  • Avoid creating any other reason to be fired. Maintain good job performance and follow workplace rules.
  • Blow the whistle on your own time, with your own resources, not your employer’s. (Don’t communicate with your contacts during your work hours, or use office equipment, like office phones, computers, or even paper.)
  • Do not embellish your case. Stick to the facts only, and only the ones you are sure of.

Keep Records

  • Review your company’s non-disclosure policies and make sure you avoid releasing proprietary information like intellectual property, trade secrets, and company information protected by attorney-client privilege.
  • Keep a detailed record of the misconduct, your own job performance and reviews, and any harassment or retaliation. This can be incredibly valuable in court when the time comes. Record dates, times, and participants in events and conversations.
  • Keep evidence in a safe place. Agencies have in the past subpoenaed, searched, and ransacked homes, so the best choice is to secure the evidence with an attorney, where it is shielded by attorney-client privilege.
  • Be careful to avoid being accused of stealing any documents. In instances where it is not practical to take evidence home, tactics such as mislabeling and misfiling records in your office, to be found later, can prevent their destruction.
  • Strip metadata from any documents you send, such as photo locations, watermarks, or tracked changes.
  • If maintaining confidentiality and anonymity is critical, use secure, encrypted means to communicate, including SecureDrop for document exchange, Signal for texts and calls, ProtonMail or another email platform that uses Pretty Good Privacy (PGP) encryption, or mail without a return address.
  • If you intend to leak documents anonymously, make sure that you are not the only person who possesses these documents so they can’t be traced back to you. Do not make external disclosures with any information marked classified, or whose release is specifically prohibited by a federal statute. Such documents can only be disclosed internally to the Special Counsel or an Inspector General.
  • Rather than printing secure documents, take pictures of them on your personal secured phone. If you can’t take a photo, make written notes. However, do not take photographs of information for which public disclosure is unprotected.
  • Instead of providing documents, consider guiding reporters or NGOs in making a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. Be careful that the FOIA isn’t so specific that it tips off the agency that there is a whistleblower. If the agency denies their existence and you have “buried” copies of the records in camouflaged locations, teaming with the requestor to expose that cover-up can be a significant development when challenging broader misconduct.

Resources About Whistleblowing

Government Accountability Project publishes books, articles, reports, white papers, and guides to whistleblowing. This page houses several resources about whistleblowing and our work.

Guides

Our government’s integrity depends on the commitment and effort of millions of federal employees, contractors and grantees around the world. Those same workers are in the best position to learn when decisions and actions deviate from the core mission and responsibilities of government, be it through corruption, failing to comply with laws and regulations, wasting taxpayer money, jeopardizing public health and safety, or otherwise abusing the public trust. As a new administration takes office and the coronavirus pandemic continues, information remains our most powerful tool to promote open and accountable government. In order to support those speaking up for truth, we developed the second edition of our guide for federal government employees, contractors, and grantees–across all agencies and issues—who have discovered serious abuses of public trust and need guidance about their rights, risks and options. Whether you have yet to raise concerns or have already made disclosures, this guide is the first step for  navigating the complex path of whistleblowing safely and effectively.

Science whistleblowers have historically functioned as one of the most powerful vehicles for exposing environmental, health, and safety risks, research censorship, gross mismanagement, and other abuses that undermine the missions of federal agencies to protect the public interest. This free guide seeks to empower and protect federal employees of conscience by offering guidance about their legal rights to blow the whistle and practical advice for making disclosures about wrongdoing in the safest and most effective ways possible.

The partnership between whistleblowers and journalists is essential to a functioning democracy. The power of whistleblowers to hold institutions and leaders accountable often depends on the critical work of journalists who verify whistleblowers’ disclosures and bring them to the public. This free guide seeks to empower and protect journalists and their whistleblower sources by sharing critical information about their shared goals, responsibilities, and challenges.

This resource was developed to support advocacy groups that, in the course of working on issues across the social, economic, and environmental justice spectrums, might encounter employees who want to share important information to advance accountability. The free guide offers practical guidance to help them protect and support potential whistleblowers while ensuring they are not inadvertently exposed to retaliation.

This resource was developed to support election workers who may be the best, and possibly the only, people in a position to notice and report the illegal actions of other election workers. The free guide offers guidance to help them protect and support potential whistleblowers while ensuring they are not inadvertently exposed to retaliation, in addition to information about how and where to seek support.

Books

Published by Government Accountability Project in partnership with Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility and the Project On Government Oversight, Caught Between Conscience and Career is a free survival guide for public employees considering blowing the whistle on waste, fraud, or abuse while maintaining anonymity. Whistleblowers can look to this guide for tips on how to avoid surveillance and make their protected disclosures have greater impact without incurring reprisal. Caught Between Conscience and Career is an updated April 2019 version of the 2002 publication, Art of Anonymous Activism.

Tom Devine and Tarek F. Maassarani
This step-by-step guide details key information that potential corporate whistleblowers should know before, during, and after blowing the whistle.

Videos

National Press Club, Washington, DC, March 27, 2018
Panel discussion examining how the Trump administration uses public information officers to limit and shape reporters’ access to government information. Tom Devine, Government Accountability Project Legal Director, is featured as an expert panelist.

State Farm Ethics Lecture, University of Nebraska Lincoln, September 20, 2017
Dana Gold, Government Accountability Project Director of Education, facilitates a conversation with whistleblowers Richard Bowen and Walt Tamosaitis on their decisions to blow the whistle, the retaliation they suffered, and the changes they saw their disclosures make. Gold has been an advocate for whistleblowers for close to three decades as an attorney, an academic, and a program director.

TEDx Wilmington Salon: Whistleblowers and the First Amendment, July 30, 2016
In this talk on whistleblowing as freedom of speech, Government Accountability Project Legal Director, Tom Devine, illustrates the historical impact of whistleblowers and the potential of their truth to positively shape society. Devine has assisted thousands of whistleblowers since joining Government Accountability Project in 1979, and he won the first U.S. Supreme Court test of the Whistleblower Protection Act in 2015.

TEDx Wilmington Salon: Whistleblowers and the First Amendment, July 30, 2016
In this speech by Louis Clark, Executive Director of Government Accountability Project, Clark frames whistleblowing as the inconvenient truth that is worth championing. Clark founded the organization in 1977 and has received numerous awards for his long-lasting commitment to advocating for social and political change.

Reports and Publications

Recommended Resources

For a curated list of recommended articles, books, videos, and other valuable resources on whistleblowing, click here.