Whistleblowing Survival Tips
If you are considering blowing the whistle on serious misconduct, ask yourself the following questions and consider the survival tips that follow.
Are You Ready to Blow the Whistle?
Will you remain anonymous? If so:
- Am I sure that what I see as misconduct is really improper in the big picture?
- Can I prove my allegation without needing to publicly explain it?
- What documents do I have? Are these documents easily understandable?
- Can any documents be traced back to me because they are uniquely marked or because only a few people have access to them?
- Have I raised concerns internally? Will that make me a target of suspicions?
- Can I remain cool and calm at work when my colleagues bring up the disclosure?
- If I remain anonymous, will that give the wrongdoers the opportunity to cover up the problem or will it make change?
- If discovered, what will happen? Am I prepared for the stress?
- Do I have a backup plan to support myself and my family in case I am discovered?
- Do I want to remain anonymous forever, or am I willing to eventually take part in some sort of public response to the wrongdoing.
If you go public:
- Am I sure I’m right? Do I have enough evidence?
- Is my family ready for a protracted fight with my employers?
- Am I ready to potentially lose coworkers or friends?
- Am I ready to risk my career and reputation?
- Am I ready to have negative things in my past dug up and used against me?
- Will going public help me prove my case or make a difference?
- Would it be better to remain anonymous and continue to collect more evidence about wrongdoing?
Whistleblowing Survival Tips
If you’re ready to blow the whistle, start by reading these tips, before you take any actions that could cost you.
- Consult your loved ones. One of the most serious risks of whistleblowing is family breakup or alienation because the entire family suffers from the resulting hardships. Don’t keep it a secret from them.
- Test the waters for support among your workplace peers through strategic but casual questioning and discussions with co-workers. 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 help you later on.
- Consider working from within the system. Challenges to institutions often are not taken seriously unless you can prove that you provided the proper authorities a chance to correct the problem and they did not. Be careful that your attempt to work within the system does not sound the alarm and trigger a cover-up or reprisal. You can try to raise the issue casually and see what kind of reaction there is. Be careful who you do this with, especially if the person you complain to is involved in the wrongdoing.
- 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.
- Do not embellish your case. Stick to the facts only, and only the ones you are sure of.
- Get legal help early on. You need a lawyer, especially one versed in whistleblower law. GAP, and other organizations, can provide this or help you find a lawyer.
- Make a plan. Try and figure out how your employer will respond before they do and strategize based on that, including strategically timed releases of information to catch them in lies.
- Network outside of your job, including with elected officials, journalists, and activists who might be able to help your.
- 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. You can even make a copy of your memos, seal them in a envelope, and mail it to yourself. Leave it unopened, and when the time comes, you can produced a postmarked contemporaneous envelope of notes.
- Secure any relevant records before drawing any suspicion to yourself. These include e-mails, memos, and documents. Keep copies of these at home. Be aware, sometimes your employer may accuse you of stealing the document from them, so instead of the original take copies or photos. If you’re in a situation that requires extreme caution, like a classified setting, memorize the document and reproduce it at home.
- Review your company non-disclosure policies and make sure you avoid releasing proprietary information like intellectual property, trade secrets, and company information protected by attorney client privilege. With records like that cannot be safely disclosed, make a list of every record and save them in a safe place on the company’s network like a mislabeled folder. You can also spread documents widely by sending innocuous emails to coworkers that include the important documents as relevant attachments.
- Blow the whistle on your own time, with your own resources, not your employer’s, unless you have specific approval, such as through a collective bargaining agreement.
- Check for skeletons in your closet and be prepared for anything and everything to possibly come out in case of a smear campaign by your employer.
- Give the authorities assigned to investigate your disclosures a chance when working with them to investigate your case, 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.
These questions and tips were adapted from the Corporate Whistleblower’s Survival Guide by GAP’s legal director, Tom Devine.