The whistleblower’s handbook: how to be an effective resister Brian Martin

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The whistleblower’s handbook:
how to be an effective resister
Brian Martin
Published in 1999 by Jon Carpenter in Charlbury, UK
and Envirobook in Sydney, Australia
This book went out of print in 2008.
This is the original text, with minor changes, a different format and page numbering (89 pages
instead of 167), and omission of the list of contacts (now on the web) and index.
1. Seven common mistakes 3
2. The problem 7
3. Speaking out and the consequences 10
4. Personal assessment: what should I do? 18
5. Preparation 23
6. Official channels 29
7. Building support 45
8. Case studies: considering options 65
9. Surviving 77
10. Whistleblower groups 82
References 87
Quick reference guide
• If you have a general interest in the topic, start with chapter 1.
• If you don’t know what to expect if you speak out, see chapter 3.
• If you are trying to decide what to do about a situation, see chapter 4.
• If you are planning to speak out, see chapter 5.
• If you are already involved in making a complaint, see chapter 6.
• If you’re up against a deeply entrenched problem, see chapter 7.
• If you want to become active and work for social change, see chapter 10.
From the back cover
This definitive manual for people who speak
out in the public interest tells how to assess
options, prepare for action, use official
channels, build support — and survive the
experience. It is filled with sample cases that
show what can happen when you make the
wrong assumptions or take the wrong actions.
The wrongdoing you discover might involve
corruption, injustice or danger to the public.
What should you do? If you do nothing, the
problem will continue; lives might even be
threatened. If you speak out, you may be
attacked — more seriously than you can
imagine — and the problem may still continue.
Brian Martin’s advice is based on his
contact with hundreds of whistleblowers and
dissidents, plus consultation with others
experienced in the area. There can be no
guarantees, but his advice can improve your
chances of success. Even if you never expect
to challenge the system yourself, this handbook will give you valuable insight into the
dynamics of individual struggles and the
problems other people face.
Over the years, I have learned an enormous
amount from hundreds of individuals through
personal stories, campaigns and critical
analyses. This book is an attempt to pass on
some of this collective wisdom to others.
Three people with enormous experience
with whistleblowing and dissent — Jean
Lennane, Isla MacGregor and Lesley Pinson,
all of whom have been active in Whistleblowers Australia — offered highly perceptive
comments on a draft of this manual. In some
places I have rewritten or augmented my text
appropriately, but where possible I have let
them speak for themselves. Thanks also to
Gabriele Bammer and Stewart Dean for
The examples
The examples in this handbook are not directly
based on actual cases, in whole or part. They
do draw on themes that are routine in real
cases, and are intended to illustrate points that
become familiar to anyone who has listened to
dozens of stories. The examples differ in a few
ways from actual cases.
• Most actual cases are incredibly complex,
with all sorts of details and byways. It’s
impossible to convey such complexity in a
paragraph or two.
• Actual cases are far more traumatic for the
target of the attack than any description can
suggest. (See chapter 9 for more on this.)
• In actual cases there are real people and
real consequences. Without knowing the
people involved it is hard to grasp the personal
• The attacks I describe are bad enough, but
in many actual cases the attacks are far worse:
spiteful, insidious, unremitting and intensely
debilitating. If anyone thinks the examples are
unrealistic, they’re right: I’m more optimistic
than most whistleblowers have a right to be.
For those who’d like to read about actual
cases, there are many good references given at
the end of the book. Even better is to talk to
someone who has been there.
Brian Martin has been involved with issues
of dissent and whistleblowing for twenty
years and has extensive experience with social
movements. He helped found Dissent
Network Australia and has been national
president of Whistleblowers Australia. Dr
Martin has a PhD in theoretical physics and
now works as a social scientist at the University of Wollongong. He is the author of many
books and 200 major articles in diverse fields
including suppression of dissent, scientific
controversies, strategies for social movements,
democracy, information technology and
nonviolent action.
Seven common mistakes
Seven mistakes are commonly made by those aiming to expose wrongdoing:
• Trusting too much
• Not having enough evidence
• Using the wrong style
• Not waiting for the right opportunity
• Not building support
• Playing the opponent’s game
• Not knowing when to stop.
Lots of principled and courageous people set
out to expose wrongdoing — and are utter
failures. They fall into standard traps. This is
partly because they are trusting. They trust
people in power and they believe what
they’ve been taught about how the system
operates. Their cynical co-workers wouldn’t
try anything so foolish.
Society desperately needs principled and
courageous people, and it needs them to be
successful in exposing problems and exploring
solutions. Here are some of the most common
mistakes made by those trying to expose
problems. We can call them workers and
citizens who are doing their ethical duty or we
can call them whistleblowers, dissidents, agitators, conscientious objectors or whatever. The
name doesn’t matter much, but the failures do.
This is not a book about ethics. It is about
people who act on the basis of principles such
as honesty, accountability and human welfare
and who resist corruption, discrimination and
exploitation. It’s not about people who
“resist” primarily to serve their own interests.
An honest, community-spirited person of
course reports the problem. Naturally management will be eager to fix the problem — or
will they?
One of the biggest mistakes of those who
discover problems is to trust that others will
also be concerned and take action. Many
whistleblowers, burned by their experiences,
say that they were naive. They trusted. They
trusted that management would act. They
trusted that co-workers would support them.
They trusted that the union would back them.
They trusted that government agencies and the
courts would work to ensure justice.
Sometimes this trust is warranted, but all
too often it is not. Cynical workers don’t act
because they assume management knows
about and tolerates the problem and that if
they do anything about it they will suffer
reprisals. In many cases they are right.
Helen was a conscientious employee in a
large employment agency. After being promoted into a new position, she began to notice
a bias in results. Some clients had only a small
chance of success, whereas others — who paid
a “bonus fee” — received favoured treatment.
She talked about it with her boss, who explained that the fee and other gratuities were a
standard part of the business. She became even
more disturbed and wrote a memo to the chief
1. Trusting too much
There’s a serious problem: money is being
siphoned from accounts; the organisation’s
public statements are misleading; cronies
without skills are being promoted. What to do?
Seven common mistakes; the problem
executive officer asking for a review of the
bonus fee system. Within a few days she was
carpeted by her boss for inadequate performance, especially for alleged complaints received
from clients a year earlier. She then raised the
issue of bonus fees at a staff meeting. None of
her colleagues would support her. It became
apparent that the bonus fee was part of a
system of bribery that was accepted by all
managers. After being fired, Helen sued her
former employer on the grounds of unfair
dismissal. Her professional association then
refused to support her. In the middle of the
hearing, it became apparent that her lawyer
had been conspiring with the company.
Helen had stumbled upon a corrupt practice
that was so institutionalised that everyone
accepted it as the way things were done. She
trusted her boss; she trusted her CEO; she
trusted her co-workers; she trusted her professional association and her lawyer. Could she
trust anyone at all?
2. Not having enough evidence
Humans have a great capacity for the logical
process called induction. Observing bits of
data, they can think up an explanation for it.
Since there might be more than one explanation
that fits the data, it’s important to obtain
additional evidence to confirm or deny the
This is just what detectives are supposed to
do when investigating crimes. It is also what a
concerned worker or citizen needs to do when
discovering something suspicious.
The big mistake here is to make claims
about what’s going on without first having
evidence to back up every detail. The claims
might be entirely correct, but those without
evidence can be plausibly denied, and even the
claims with evidence can be discredited.
Fred was a customs officer who had just
moved to a new posting. He began to notice
that certain types of goods were always put
through on a particular shift involving the same
group of officers. He knew from previous
experience that these types of goods were
commonly used to smuggle drugs. In the face
of much resistance, he managed to get on the
shift himself, and uncovered a major drugs
shipment. Then he was transferred out to a
less desirable job. He went to the media with
claims of corruption in customs. But in the
face of bland denials by customs officials,
nothing could be done. There wasn’t enough
hard evidence even to justify an inquiry.
Fred was stymied in his career in customs,
so he obtained a job in a trucking company
checking inventories. With his nose for corruption, he soon detected a scam in which certain
goods were trucked without going through
accounts, in return for a bribe. This time Fred
collected detailed evidence, including taped
conversations and photos. But he wrecked his
credibility by claiming that the operation was
approved by top management. This was
probably true, but without hard proof regulators could do nothing. Fred lost his job. He
won his case for unfair dismissal but the
managers sued him for defamation, successfully shifting the focus from their culpability
to Fred’s behaviour.
3. Driving away supporters by the wrong
Who is more believable: a serious-looking and
sober-sounding scientist or a dishevelled,
ranting street-corner speaker? As much as we
might disapprove, style is a crucial part of
getting a message across.
People who try to expose problems like
child abuse, public health risks and corruption
are usually outraged. Yet an approach with too
much overt emotion — shouting, hectoring,
disgust — can be counterproductive. A
sensible, to-the-point approach is often more
It is possible, though rare, to appear to be
too calm. An effective style hits the right note
for a relevant audience.
Another problem is that concerned people
get enormously involved in the issue. They are
so involved that they forget that others know
little or nothing about it. They jump right into
The whistleblower’s handbook
the middle of the story without explaining the
Allen was the victim of a construction
swindle. He had contracted for improvements
to his home. After paying £50,000, the work
done was woefully inadequate, and a different
contractor quoted Allen £50,000 to fix the
problems. However, the original contractor
claimed that Allen owed h i m money and
refused to do anything until being paid. The
building industry watchdog took a year to
decide that there was no case to answer. Allen
berated anyone who couldn’t get away. Even
those who were sympathetic soon became
tired of his tirades. He compiled a 45-page
document titled “BUILDING INDUSTRY
CORRUPTION.” It was filled with statements of outrage and extreme claims, including
letters he had written to various official bodies.
He sent this document to hundreds of politicians and government departments, but only
received a few polite letters in response. Even
though he had a good case, Allen’s style
screamed “crank.”
4. Not waiting for the right opportunity
Many a good exposé is ineffective because it is
made at the wrong time, to the wrong audience
or in the wrong circumstances. Many people
believe that the truth is enough on its own and
that it shouldn’t matter when or how they
speak out. But it does! Even after carefully
collecting evidence, it may be necessary to
wait months or even years to have the best
chance of making a difference. It’s a common
mistake for people with an important message
to go public as soon as they are ready — rather
than when the opportunity is just right.
Dolores, an experienced political activist,
collected evidence of surreptitious donations
to a political party from foreign vested interests. She made contact with an investigative
journalist, who produced a series of excellent
stories in a major newspaper. However, the
party was able to weather the storm without
much difficulty — it had just been elected to
office with a large majority and was enjoying a
honeymoon period with the public and media.
No other outlets took up the story. Just over a
year later, though, the party’s popularity had
dropped, it was in the midst of a bitter internal
fight and the opposition party was sniffing for
blood. The same story would have been
dynamite at the time, but since it had already
been broken, journalists were not as interested
as they might have been.
5. Not building support
If truth was enough by itself, it shouldn’t be
necessary to build support. It would simply
be enough to speak the truth. This is a serious
mistake. To have some chance of success, it is
vital to have supporters. This often requires a
patient effort to find out where people stand
and then to mobilise those who are sympathetic, win over some of those who are neutral
and to reduce the hostility of some of the
opponents. It’s not enough to be correct and
to be serving the public interest.
When the old-fashioned politician —
without money for media campaigns — goes
door-to-door meeting people and exchanging
ideas and plans, that’s a form of grassroots
politics. A similar process is required in
organisations and communities on many
issues, even when the facts are clear-cut. It is
tempting to skip this laborious process and
just run with the facts. It’s often disastrous.
Frank was a social worker with lots of
experience. Tired of the big-city rat-race, he
moved to a small town, where he was attached
to the local hospital. Soon after arriving, he
started receiving reports of abusive behaviour
by a local government official, Peterson,
including verbal abuse and assault of Peterson’s neighbours and anyone who dared
criticise him. Frank arranged a private meeting
with the mayor. He described some of what
he’d heard, suggested some constructive
responses and asked for advice. Not long after,
he was dismissed from the hospital. Six people
— five clients and one person he’d never met
— filed complaints about him, including sexual
assault. These complaints were written up in
Seven common mistakes; the problem
the local newspaper. Frank was referred to a
psychiatrist and had his licence as a social
worker removed. He only found out later that
Peterson had lots of connections in the town,
including a brother who was the hospital
superintendent and a nephew who was editor
of the paper.
6. Playing the opponent’s game
There are all manner of formal channels for
dealing with injustices, including grievance
procedures, ombudsmen, antidiscrimination
boards and the courts. When an individual
appeals to one of these formal channels for
action to be taken against an organisation, the
organisation has all the advantages. It has far
more money, unlimited time and usually little
individual responsibility. It can stall, resist
giving information, hire expensive lawyers and
mount attacks.
In many cases, to stick to formal channels is
to play the opponent’s game largely by the
opponent’s rules. The individual is worn down
emotionally and financially while the organisation continues on, unchecked and unchanged.
Even if the individual wins a settlement, it is
usually years down the track, is too little and
too late for much satisfaction, and does
nothing to change the original problem.
The formal channels present themselves as
means to justice, and many people believe in
them. They trust the system to provide a
means of policing itself — an extension of
mistake #1, trusting too much.
Joy received a faulty diagnosis from an
established physician and was treated incorrectly for two years, leading to additional
health problems and costing her tens of
thousands of dollars in lost income and
expenses, not to mention pain and suffering.
She had kept meticulous documentation and
obtained correct diagnoses from several
doctors. One of them confidentially told her
that she was only one of many who had been
misdiagnosed by this physician. Joy made a
complaint to the medical appeals tribunal.
After a desultory investigation and 18 months,
it reported that no action would be taken. She
followed up with a complaint to a consumer
justice board. This time the process took over
two years, with a similar result. Finally, she
sued the physician for damages. The physician’s insurance company delayed the case for
three years and then mounted a smear operation, questioning her bona fides and sanity.
Joy finally won the case after five years. The
insurance company appealed and, several
years later, eventually won the appeal.
Meanwhile, the physician retired with his
public reputation untarnished.
7. Not knowing when to stop
Once embarked on a quest for justice, it can be
hard to let go and get on with life. This is
related to the type of psychological phenomenon by which people, after losing money, are
inclined to risk more to recoup the loss. Yet
often it’s better to cut your losses and go on to
more productive activities. This is especially
the case when it’s apparent that the chance of
success is small or that further gains will
require more effort for far less return.
Some of those who have a commitment to
justice and truth become used to hearing others
say they are wasting their time. If they had
listened to every sceptic they would have
never acted in the first place. But the real
trade-off is not between action and no action,
but rather between different types of action.
When the use-by date of a campaign arrives,
it’s time to shift to a different diet, otherwise
the taste will become ever more bitter.
Helena was a high school art teacher who
had taught for many years at different schools,
moving because of her husband’s career. She
liked to experiment with different teaching
methods and was popular with students and
other teachers. At one school, though, the
young authoritarian principal was threatened
by her success and popularity. He arranged to
get her fired after a series of negative evaluations and trumped up charges. Deeply
shocked, she tried several formal channels and
after five years received a substantial pay-out,
The whistleblower’s handbook
though the details remained confidential and no
action was taken against the principal. Helena
wouldn’t let go of the case, though, and
continued to write letters to politicians and
official bodies and to tell the story to anyone
who would listen. She did not return to teaching or take any other job.
an effective style and waiting for the right
moment? How would they have learned
organising skills when it’s not part of the job?
How would they know that formal channels
are a major trap when everyone assumes that
they are there to fix up problems? After years
in a lonely struggle and many betrayals, how
are they to make a sensible judgement about
the next step — and when to bow out?
No, these mistakes are entirely predictable,
and that’s why story after story sounds much
the same. It is only by learning from the
mistakes of others, and from the accumulated
wisdom of dissidents and justice-seekers, that
a better path forward can be discerned. The
following chapters give some idea of what’s
People shouldn’t be blamed for making these
mistakes. Even those with years of experience
in difficult jobs are like babes in the woods
when suddenly confronted with the full force
of the system. Why wouldn’t they trust
people with whom they had worked for years?
Where would they have learned skills in
collecting and sticking to evidence, developing
The problem
Figure out what the problem is and what causes it.
The problem is that something is seriously
wrong and no one is able or willing to do
anything about it. Here are some examples.
• A company is regularly defrauding clients
by adding a fee for an unnecessary (and
unperformed) service.
• Many employees receive confidential
payments — bribes — in order to turn a blind
eye to a violation of procedure.
• Friends of a particular boss are given jobs,
promotions and special opportunities; those
who have fallen out of favour with this boss
are given a hard time.
• In applying policy, certain groups are
discriminated against: an ethnic minority,
members of a certain religion, backers of a
particular political party.
• An organisation persists in a practice that
is hazardous to the public.
• Your boss is a nasty bully who humiliates
you and your co-workers.
• Blatant sexual harassment by one particular powerful individual is tolerated by top
• The public relations department is instructed to lie to the public to cover up a
serious mistake by managers.
• The high ideals of an organisation are
ignored by most employees, who find it safer
to do shoddy work.
• Your boss is embezzling money.
The central issue is how to solve the problem.
But first, a preliminary question. Do you want
Seven common mistakes; the problem
to try to help solve the problem? Perhaps you
don’t care. Perhaps you have been part of the
problem, and don’t plan to change. If so, this
handbook is not for you. If you do care, then
this handbook is for you.
If you want to try to help fix the problem,
then the central issue is how. What is the first
step? Who will be willing to help? What are
the likely repercussions? Is it possible to make
a difference? Is it worth doing anything?
Which problem — when there are several —
should be the first priority? These questions
are dealt with in later chapters.
Let’s look a bit more at the problems. They
involve all sorts of different areas. But many
of them fit a few categories.
• Injustice, unfairness and discrimination.
This includes bias in favour of friends or
relatives and bias against out-groups.
• Violations of laws and/or morality. This
includes stealing, bribery and lying.
• Dangerous practices. This includes causing
hazards to health and the environment.
• Abusive behaviour. This includes bullying,
harassment and scapegoating.
• Complicity. This is covering up or doing
nothing about a problem.
It is important to work out exactly what you
think the problem is, and why you think it’s a
Example A pharmaceutical company has been
selling a certain drug for several years. Some of
the company’s scientists came up with a
finding that suggests a new risk for certain
users. It has been a year since the scientists
reported on their finding but the drug is still
being sold the same way, with no change in the
information sheet about adverse effects.
What is the problem? One problem is a
potential danger to the public. Another is that
the drug’s information sheet is incomplete: this
might be considered false advertising or, in
other words, lying. Finally, there may be
complicity: the unwelcome data are being
knowingly ignored. On the other hand,
management may say there’s no problem at all,
since the new finding has not been confirmed
and they don’t want to alarm people who are
benefiting from the drug.
What problem is most important to fix? Is it to
alert consumers to the hazard? Is it to do more
research to gain a better understanding of the
risk? Is it to change the company’s approach
to possible drug risks, so that consumer safety
is given a higher priority? Is it to change the
culture of conformity, in which no one wants
to do anything that might disturb a good seller?
Of course, you might be concerned about all
these problems. But to be effective, it’s useful
to know where your priorities lie.
The source of problems
It can be very helpful to understand why a
problem arises and why it persists. The most
immediate explanation is that a person or
group has something to gain, typically money,
power or status. Financial fraud can be motivated by greed. Hazardous practices can be
motivated by the push for profits. Claiming
credit for other people’s ideas can be motivated by the desire for promotion. Covering
up for mistakes by colleagues can be motivated
by the desire to protect the group’s reputation
for good work. To begin an analysis of the
source of a problem, ask “who has something
to gain?”
Although many problems can be explained
this way, there are numerous exceptions.
Sometimes the immediate explanation doesn’t
work. A company might be losing millions of
dollars due to fraud but managers don’t do
anything about it. This might be because the
managers are in on the fraud. Another possibility is that if any individual tried to stop the
fraud, they would get no support or even come
under attack, so it’s just easier to let it continue.
Another sort of explanation is that problems occur because of the way things are
organised. Instead of blaming individuals, this
explanation traces problems to procedures,
The whistleblower’s handbook
organisational structures and sets of expectations. For example, the rules on safety at a
workplace might be so complicated and difficult to carry out that most workers have to
ignore them just to get the job done. It is easy
to blame the workers for not following the
rules or management for not enforcing them,
but perhaps a better approach is to simplify
and clarify the rules.
In the case of burglary, many blame the
burglars. Others blame parents for not bringing
up children to be honest, or teachers for not
educating students properly. But does blame
help solve the problem? Another approach is
to look at solutions that involve changing the
system. Perhaps if there were more opportunities for satisfying work, fewer people would
resort to burglary. Perhaps part of the problem
is the pervasive role of advertising and commercialism, which present acquisition of
products as the symbols of success, and make
some people feel excluded. These are explanations that blame “the system” or “society”
rather than individuals. You don’t need to
agree with any particular explanation in order
to realise that there is a difference between
blaming individuals and seeing the problem as
due to procedures or structures.
Psychologists have found that it is very
common for people to blame individuals for
problems rather than social arrangements. For
example, if the government develops a bad
policy, it is easy and common for critics to
blame politicians, often a single leading figure.
It is harder to grasp and adopt a less individualistic explanation, for example that there is a
complex interaction between pressure groups,
legislative restrictions and media-driven expectations that led to the policy in spite of
everyone’s good intentions.
The explanation does make a difference. If
problems are seen as due to individuals, then
the solution is usually to deal with the individuals, for example to replace or discipline
them. Sometimes that works but often the
problem continues on as before. If the organisational structure gives ample opportunities
for fraud, then it’s not much use getting rid of
a few individuals, since their replacements are
likely to succumb sooner or later. A better
approach would be to change the structure.
But that’s usually a much more difficult task.
Speaking out and the consequences
If you speak out, you may be attacked.
• There are many methods of attack.
• There are several reasons for attack.
• The attackers feel entirely justified — you should understand the way they think.
• Determine who is causing the problem.
Occasionally those who speak out about
problems are treated with the respect and
seriousness that they deserve. After all, if
everyone tolerates corruption and dangerous
practices, then the problems will continue. The
person who speaks out is the key to finding a
Sometimes — just sometimes — that’s
actually what happens. The person who yells
“fire!” when an actual fire is threatening lives
is applauded. If only it was always that easy!
In lots of cases, unfortunately, the warning
is treated entirely differently. It is a signal for
an attack on the person who gave the warning.
about it, he began to criticise her performance
at every opportunity, as his own continued to
deteriorate. Then she reported her concerns to
the hospital administrator. The next time one
of her patients did poorly, she was carpeted,
reprimanded and put on notice for dismissal.
(And so on.)
Arnie was a young policeman, intelligent and
enthusiastic. He discovered that many of his
colleagues, on getting to the scene of a breakand-enter, would steal things themselves
before the owners arrived. Since he refused to
participate himself, his colleagues became
suspicious or hostile. Then he reported his
observations to a police anti-corruption unit.
Although the unit was supposed to keep all
such reports confidential, shortly afterwards
Arnie was openly abused by his colleagues,
being called a “dog” and other names. He was
repeatedly reprimanded for slight or imaginary
violations of dress code and driving. His wife
received threatening phone calls. (And so on.)
Fred was a building surveyor. He noticed that
a block of houses, a decade old, was built on
unstable soil in an area potentially vulnerable
to slippage. He made a routine report about
this; nothing was done. Fearing the consequences of a major storm, he made his
concerns known to the builder and the relevant
local authorities. In the following months he
noticed he was being shunned by some of his
colleagues. He noticed his commissions were
dropping off. Then there was a formal
complaint about his performance. (And so on.)
Jacki, who lived near a light industrial district,
found out about plans for a new plant that
would produce a chemical she had heard about.
After talking to some friends and local experts,
she learned that the chemical production
process could cause a long-term environmental
hazard and that similar plants had been
opposed in other localities. She held a meeting
with neighbours, wrote a letter to the newspaper and organised a petition. She then found
Mary was a new surgeon in a hospital,
working under a prominent doctor in the field.
She noticed that he was making poor judgements in some cases and that he had been using
a lot of drugs, easily obtained at the hospital.
After she made a cautious comment to him
The whistleblower’s handbook
out that slanderous rumours were being spread
about her motives and mental health. The
police searched her house for drugs, supposedly on the basis of an anonymous tip. She
was served with a writ for defaming the
chemical company. Her children were harassed
at school. (And so on.)
Methods of attack
There are many techniques used against those
who speak out. Some of them are:
• ostracism
• harassment
• spreading of rumours
• threats of reprimands, dismissal, etc.
• referrals to psychiatrists
• censorship of writing
• blocking of appointments
• blocking of promotions
• withdrawal of financial support
• forced job transfers
• denial of work opportunities
• formal reprimands
• legal actions
• dismissal
• blacklisting
• putting in danger
• physical assault
The most common reprisal for speaking out is
ostracism. This is when co-workers turn away
rather than saying hello, when they sit at
another table during tea breaks and lunch,
when they stop dropping by to have a chat,
and when they make excuses to leave whenever you approach them. Friendly or at least
cordial relations with co-workers is one of the
most important things about job satisfaction.
Hence this “cold shoulder” treatment can be
very hard to handle.
Another common reprisal is harassment.
This can be quite petty. For example:
• You no longer get helpful hints on
upcoming jobs.
• You are given no notice of meetings.
• You are given less desirable tasks.
• You are asked to carry out unnecessary
bureaucratic procedures that are normally
ignored or postponed, and then to repeat them
due to minor discrepancies.
• The company car is never ready when you
need it (but it is for others).
• Your requests for leave are misplaced or
approved only for inconvenient times.
• Your roster ends up being unnecessarily
• You are asked to change offices several
• Your normal job, at which you are skilled,
is given to someone else.
• You are given too much work.
• You aren’t given enough work.
Rumours are common enough in any organisation or neighbourhood. As a form of reprisal,
they can be especially vicious, and also attack
a person’s reputation in a pointed fashion.
A common way to discredit someone is to
say that they are mentally ill. This is more
pointed when they are formally required to see
a psychiatrist. This is a form of harassment
and can also fan the rumour mill.
Reprimands, censorship, blocking of appointments and promotions, withdrawal of
financial support, forced job transfers, legal
actions and dismissal are straightforward forms
of attack. Reprimands, legal actions and
dismissal are obvious enough: if your boss
serves you with a writ for defamation, you can
be in no doubt about who is the target. On the
other hand, it is usually hard to know why
your application for a job has failed, unless
you have inside information.
There’s one extra level to all these forms of
reprisal: the threat that they might be applied.
You might be told that you’d better be careful
in order to avoid a formal reprimand. Comments might be made that those who criticise
the organisation’s policies will have a difficult
time getting promoted. You might be threatened with a transfer, defamation suit or
B l a c k l i s t i n g is when many different
employers in a field conspire not to employ
Speaking out and the consequences
someone. If you’ve exposed corruption in
your firm and are dismissed, it can be difficult
enough to get a job elsewhere. If other firms
find out about the dismissal, perhaps due to a
few quiet words, you may be denied employment in the field altogether.
Finally, there can be threats and attacks on
one’s physical safety. For example, the wheel
nuts on your car might be loosened, leading to
a potentially hazardous breakdown at high
speeds. Assaults and creation of hazards are a
reality in many workplaces, and there are even
murders. However, physical violence is used in
only a small fraction of reprisals. One reason is
that violence can backfire, creating sympathy
for the victim, because physical attack is
difficult to justify. Ostracism and petty
harassment, by contrast, are much more subtle
and hard to expose.
Reasons for attack
You’ve spoken out and then come under
attack. That means that you’ve come under
attack because you’ve spoken out. Right?
Well, yes in many cases. But not always. A
person can come under attack for all sorts of
reasons. Here are some of them.
• Bad luck. You are blamed for something
just because you were in the wrong place at
the wrong time.
• Mistake. Your name was mentioned only
because someone got confused.
• Personal dislike. Someone — maybe your
boss — doesn’t like you. Maybe you remind
them of a parent or spouse. Maybe you have a
mannerism that annoys someone. You are
• Scapegoating. Bad practices have been in
place for a long time and have just been
exposed. It’s convenient to blame someone.
You are a convenient target.
• Caught in the crossfire. There’s a longstanding feud between two powerful factions.
Anyone and anything is used to wage the
struggle. You are attacked as a means to get at
someone else.
• Bloodymindedness. Once the boss begins
on a course of action, s/he will proceed no
matter what. Whatever the reason for coming
under scrutiny to begin with — bad luck, a
mistake, etc. — you are now a perpetual
target. In this way, the boss’s original judgement is vindicated.
The first step is to decide whether you’re
under attack. If so, the next step is to decide
why you’re under attack. The next question is
what to do about it. That’s the subject of the
next chapter.
Most people prefer not to be attacked at
all. Of course not! Many of those who speak
out don’t expect any reprisals. They see a
problem and report it, assuming that all
reasonably minded people will then investigate
and do something to fix it.
Once people know that reprisals are
possible, that changes things. People become
afraid and most of them don’t speak out. The
problems fester.
How the other side thinks
What about those who launch the attacks?
They are the ones who harass their colleagues,
make threats, issue disciplinary notices,
dismiss employees and continue with damaging practices. It’s easy to imagine that they are
corrupt, scheming and just plain evil. Actually,
this is not a useful way to think about it. How
do they perceive the problem? How do they
justify their behaviour?
From their point of view, the person who
speaks out is at fault. The attackers usually
think they have been remarkably restrained.
They focus on the victim’s inadequacies (and
who doesn’t have some?) and on the real threat
to the organisation caused by the person’s
unnecessary and destabilising claims.
In practice, what this means is that reprisals
are never — absolutely never — called reprisals. Nearly always, these actions are justified
in terms of the target’s inadequacies and
failures: their inability to do their job, their
The whistleblower’s handbook
disloyalty, their violation of organisational
norms, their paranoia.
Therefore, it is always best to assume that
officials whom you think are corrupt and
unscrupulous are actually, in their own minds,
totally justified in everything they do. Perhaps
there are a few people who say to themselves,
“I’m dishonest and I’m going to victimise that
honest person who’s trying to expose me.”
But don’t count on it!
Because each side believes it is correct, the
struggle is one over credibility. Who will be
Most books about bureaucracies don’t
provide much insight into these issues. One
that does is Robert Jackall’s Moral Mazes:
The World of Corporate Managers (Oxford
University Press, 1988). Jackall obtained
access to a couple of big US corporations as
well as a public relations firm. He spent many
months interviewing managers and watching
them in action, as well as reading many
Jackall treated the world of corporate
managers as a culture. He was like an anthropologist studying an alien tribe. His aim was to
understand the social dynamics of corporate
culture. He gives many case studies of activities and crises to illustrate his analysis.
Moral Mazes can be heavy-going at times,
as some of the quotes below indicate. But it is
worth persisting with the book because of the
insights it offers. Here are some of Jackall’s
• Corporations are in a constant state of
upheaval. When a new executive takes over a
post, he (or occasionally she) brings in a whole
new crew of cronies. Bureaucracy is a set of
patronage networks.
• Corporations often respond to the whims
and inclinations of the chief executive. Even an
off-hand comment by the chief executive can
trigger subordinates into intense activity to do
what they think is being suggested. In many
cases the result is ill-advised or disastrous.
• Conformity is enforced to amazingly fine
• Managers, to be successful, must continually adapt their personalities to fit the current
situation. This is not just acting. They must
become so natural at what they do that they
“are” their act. Much of this adaptation is
fitting in. Clothes must conform to expectations, but so must speech, attitudes and
personal style. Those who don’t adapt don’t
get ahead.
• Managers don’t want to act until the
decision is generally accepted. They experience
a pervasive indecisiveness. Each one looks for
signals on what decision will be favoured.
Signals from the chief executive officer — the
top boss — are especially important.
• Responsibility is diffused and hard to pin
down. Managers avoid taking responsibility.
The key thing is to avoid being blamed for a
• Morality is doing what seems appropriate
in the situation to get things done. Morality is
doing what the boss wants. Having absolute
principles is a prescription for career stagnation or disaster.
• The symbolic manipulation of reality is
pervasive. For any decision, managers discuss
various reasons in order to settle on a way to
give legitimacy for what the corporation does.
• Public relations is simply a tool. Truth is
The successful manager is one who can adapt
to the prevailing ideas, who can please the
boss, who can avoid being blamed for failure,
and who can build alliances with supporters
above and below.
Jackall devotes a chapter, “Drawing lines”,
to the corporation’s response to whistleblowers. White was a health professional who tried
to raise concern about hearing loss among
many workers at a corporation’s textile mills.
He collected data and wrote a report. Due to
his professional training and religious background, he felt this was a clear moral issue. But
his attempts failed. He did not have supporters higher up. As well, his recommendations
for change threatened powerful interests.
Speaking out and the consequences
Other managers felt uncomfortable with
White’s moral stance.
Without clear authoritative sanctions, moral
viewpoints threaten others within an
organization by making claims on them that
might impede their ability to read the drift
of social situations. As a result, independent morally evaluative judgments get subordinated to the social intricacies of the
bureaucratic workplace … Managers know
that in the organization right and wrong get
decided by those with enough clout to make
their views stick. (p. 105).
White ended up leaving the company.
Brady was an accountant who found
various discrepancies in a company’s financial
operations. At one stage,
Brady discussed the matter with a close
friend, a man who had no defined position
but considerable influence in the company
and access to the highest circles in the
organization. He was Mr. Fixit — a lobbyist, a front man, an all-around factotum, a
man who knew how to get things done.
This friend took Brady’s anonymous memorandum to a meeting of top figures in the
corporation. “Immediately after the meeting,
Brady’s friend was fired and escorted from the
building by armed guards.” (p. 108). Brady
now realised it was the chief executive himself
who was fiddling the books. Brady was under
suspicion of having written the memo. He
eventually presented all his evidence to the
company’s chief lawyer, who wouldn’t touch
it. “Right after Brady’s boss returned from
Europe, Brady was summarily fired and he and
his belongings were literally thrown out of the
company building.” (p. 109).
Nothing new here. Another whistleblower
is dismissed. What is most interesting in
Jackall’s account is his description of how
other managers saw the situation. They saw
Brady’s dilemma as devoid of moral or
ethical content. In their view, the issues that
Brady raises are, first of all, simply practi-
cal matters. His basic failing was, first, that
he violated the fundamental rules of bureaucratic life. These are usually stated as a
series of admonitions. (1) You never go
around your boss. (2) You tell your boss
what he wants to hear, even when your
boss claims that he wants dissenting views.
(3) If your boss wants something dropped,
you drop it. (4) You are sensitive to your
boss’s wishes so that you anticipate what
he wants; you don’t force him, in other
words, to act as boss. (5) Your job is not to
report something that your boss does not
want reported, but rather to cover it up.
You do what your job requires, and you
keep your mouth shut. (pp. 109-110).
The second response of managers to Brady’s
case was that he had plenty of ways to justify
not acting. Others obviously knew about the
fiddling of the books but did nothing. They
were all playing the game. Why should Brady
worry about it? He would only make himself
The third response of managers was to say
that those things that Brady got upset about
— “irregular payments, doctored invoices,
shuffling numbers in accounts” — were ordinary things in a corporation.
Moreover, as managers see it, playing
sleight of hand with the monetary value of
inventories, post- or pre-dating memoranda
or invoices, tucking or squirreling large sums
of money away to pull them out of one’s
hat at an opportune moment are all part and
parcel of managing a large corporation
where interpretations of performance, not
necessarily performance itself, decide one’s
fate. (p. 110).
The fourth and final response of managers to
Brady’s case was to say that he shouldn’t
have acted on a moral code that had no relevance to the organisation.
Brady refused to recognize, in the view of
the managers that I interviewed, that ‘truth’
is socially defined, not absolute, and that
The whistleblower’s handbook
therefore compromise, about anything and
everything, is not moral defeat, as Brady
seems to feel, but simply an inevitable fact
of organizational life. They see this as the
key reason why Brady’s bosses did him in.
And they too would do him in without any
qualms. Managers, they say, do not want
evangelists working for them. (p. 111).
After all these events, the chief executive —
the one who fiddled the books — retired,
elevated his loyal lieutenant to his former
position and took an honorary position in the
firm, as head of internal audit!
Concerning this case, Jackall concludes:
Bureaucracy transforms all moral issues
into immediately practical concerns. A
moral judgment based on a professional
ethic makes little sense in a world where the
etiquette of authority relationships and the
necessity of protecting and covering for
one’s boss, one’s network, and oneself
supersede all other considerations and
where nonaccountability for action is the
norm. (p. 111).
Jackall’s analysis is based on just a few US
corporations. He had to approach dozens of
corporations — and adapt his pitch — before
he found a couple that granted access. There is
no easy way of knowing which of his insights
apply to other corporations, other types of
bureaucracies, and in other countries. But in as
much as the same sorts of dynamics occur,
Jackall’s examination shows that whistleblowers are up against something much bigger than
a few corrupt individuals, or even a system of
The problem is the very structure of the
organisation, in which managers who adapt to
the ethos of pragmatism and who please their
bosses are the ones who get ahead. To eliminate wrongdoing in corporations requires not
just replacing or penalising a few individuals,
but changing the entire organisational structure.
It is the structure, within the wider corporate
culture, that shapes the psychology of manag-
ers and creates the context for problems to
Who is causing the problem?
In many disputes, both sides believe they are
the victim. Rachel raised concerns about
record-keeping and suffered all sorts of false
accusations and abuse. But Rachel’s boss and
co-workers believe it is Rachel who has made
false accusations and abused them. Who is
There’s no absolute way to know, especially for those in the middle of the dispute. In
many cases, the accounts from the two sides
are so different that an outsider wouldn’t
know they are talking about the same
Ultimately, the only way to determine the
source of the problem is to carry out a detailed
investigation, obtaining as many facts as
possible. A judgement about the facts must be
based on a set of values, such as common
community assessments of what is honest and
Even without a full investigation, there are
some good pointers that you can use as guides
to what is probably going on.
• The double standard test.
• Timing.
• Who has the power?
• Who are complaints made to?
• Who is willing to discuss the issues?
The double standard test
Is one person being treated differently from
another? If so, there is a double standard.
Commonly, there is one standard for ordinary
employees and another — much more
demanding — for employees who question or
challenge those in power.
Rachel is given a reprimand for being half an
hour late three times in a month, while coworkers are later more frequently. That
appears to be a double standard: Rachel is
being singled out for criticism.
The double standard test is extremely useful
in determining whether someone has been
Speaking out and the consequences
victimised for speaking out or otherwise
challenging the powers that be. Double
standards are also to be expected in forms of
systematic discrimination, such as bias against
women, ethnic minorities or lesbians and gays.
If a person speaks out and then suddenly is
subjected to criticism or harassment — allegedly on other grounds — this should give a
strong suspicion that the criticism and harassment are a consequence of speaking out.
Rachel had been doing her job for years and
always received favourable performance
reviews. Immediately after she raised concerns
about record-keeping, the boss and other
senior people suddenly found a lot to criticise
about her performance. They alleged that she
had missed meetings, been abrasive, filled out
forms incorrectly, been a poor performer, etc.
Some complaints about her from a disgruntled
customer were pulled out of a file, even though
they had been made five years previously and
never shown to Rachel. Things that were
dismissed as trivial previously are now blown
up into major issues.
The key thing is that criticisms weren’t
made before the person spoke out, and were
made afterwards. A close look at timing reveals
a lot about who is causing the problem.
Who has the power?
If one side or person has more power than
another, it is possible to use that power to
suppress dissent. Rachel may receive a reprimand from her boss, but she can’t give a
formal reprimand to her boss. There’s an
intrinsic asymmetry in any hierarchy.
Just because one side has more power
doesn’t mean that the other side is in the right.
Rachel might have all her facts wrong and be
causing distress among her co-workers by her
If there are allegations by both sides that
the other side is suppressing free speech, then
it is worth looking at who (if anyone) has the
power to suppress free speech. Those who
don’t have much power can’t do much to
suppress others.
Who are complaints made to?
In a dispute or disagreement between fairminded people, there is open discussion of the
issues without threats or exercise of power
against the other side. In a case of suppression
of dissent, one side attempts to use power to
silence the other.
The fairest way to make a complaint is
directly to the person complained about. That
way they know what the complaint is and
have an opportunity to respond and perhaps
to fix the problem. In contrast, a complaint to
a person’s boss is often an unfair method,
especially if the person doesn’t receive a copy
or even know about the complaint.
Jason has been writing letters to newspapers about the health hazards of eating meat.
Response A. Helen, an independent meat
advocate, writes to the newspapers rebutting
Jason’s claims.
Response B. The Beef Industry Forum
writes to the newspapers rebutting Jason’s
Response C. Helen writes Jason a vehement
letter attacking his views.
Response D. The Beef Industry Forum
sends Jason documents presenting its viewpoint.
Response E. Helen sends a letter of
complaint to Jason’s boss.
Response F. The head of the Beef Industry
Forum rings Jason’s boss to complain.
Response G. The Beef Industry Forum
compiles and sends a dossier about Jason and
his alleged personal shortcomings to newspapers and others, but not a copy to Jason.
Response H. A member of the Beef Industry Forum rings newspaper editors to say that
advertising from the industry could be jeopardised if Jason’s letters continue to be
Responses A to D are open and fair. They
engage in dialogue. They may be distressing to
Jason, especially if the language is strong. But
The whistleblower’s handbook
they are fair because they are either directly to
Jason or in the same forum (letters to the
newspaper) that Jason used.
Responses E to H are not open and not fair.
They are attempts to attack Jason or to
prevent his views being heard, even though
Helen and the Beef Industry Forum may feel
personally under attack and feel that Jason has
made incorrect claims. False claims, though —
which might be felt to be “unfair” — are not
the same as unfair methods of carrying out the
One of the most useful ways to decide
whether one side in a dispute is attempting to
suppress the other side is to see whether
complaints have been made that affect the
other side’s ability to speak out. Complaints
to superiors are a very common method of this
Who is willing to discuss the issues? Another
characteristic of suppression is avoidance of
open discussion. Rather than welcoming an
opportunity for dialogue and debate, the focus
is put on the other person’s behaviour or on
exposing equals or subordinates to
those more powerful
official procedures. Alternatively, interaction
is avoided altogether.
(Sometimes it is too dangerous to go
straight to the person responsible for the
problem — perhaps it is the boss! But this
should not be a factor when the other person is
a co-worker or a subordinate.)
These tests are helpful in determining
what’s going on, but are not foolproof. If you
try applying the tests to cases you know
inside out, you’ll learn to recognise the signals
of fair play and the signals of suppression.
The language of exposing problems
The words we use have a great effect on the
way we perceive the world. When people use
the same words, often the meanings or associations are different. This applies to speaking
out about problems.
The following table lists some words
commonly used to refer to exposing a problem.
The words depend partly on who reports the
alleged problem to whom, and whether the
exposure is done openly or covertly.
reporting, dobbing,
reporting, dobbing,
exposing superiors to higher officials whistleblowing
or outside authorities
exposing superiors or officials to the exposés, investigative
journalism, social action
Reporting a classmate to a teacher is often
called ‘dobbing’ or ‘informing.’ Is the act of
reporting bad just because people frown on
‘dobbing’? What if the classmate was raping a
young child? Should reporting a burglar to
police be called ‘informing’?
Judgements are often implied in our use of
words. It’s important to consider the actual act
being referred to and not just the label.
Personal assessment: what should I do?
Before acting, pause and reflect.
• Check your assessment: hear the other side, get advice, examine your own motives.
• Clarify your personal goals.
• Build a strategy.
So there’s a problem that needs attention.
There are risks in speaking out, but the
problem is urgent and it’s worth taking the
risks. So … action!
It can be very tempting to act immediately
on finding out about a problem. But unless
you’re very experienced and know exactly
what’s involved, it is wise to pause and reflect
— indeed, pause and reflect several times.
corrupt practice. It might also be because no
one noticed.
When in doubt, it is better to assume
incompetence or bad procedures rather than
corruption and bad intentions. Very few
organisations are perfectly efficient. Likewise,
very few individuals are able to do everything
they are supposed to.
• … except in some cases. In a few cases, it
can be risky to ask to hear the other side. It
might show that you suspect something, and
lead to an attack. It might also alert people so
that they can cover up by hiding or destroying
records, establishing cover stories and the like.
Sometimes your questions are quite innocent. You don’t suspect anything. But just
because you’ve asked about certain statements,
accounts or events, perpetrators may think
you know much more than you do. As a result,
you may come under attack for no apparent
If you do come under attack in such cases,
that’s a good indication that the problem is a
serious one. But it’s not a guarantee. It could
be an attack for some other irrelevant reason.
Anyway, if it’s risky to ask to hear the
other side, you have to decide the best way to
proceed. It might be safer to appear to be on a
person’s side. You might use an approach like
this: “Someone was asking about the events
last Thursday. I’m sure there’s not really any
problem. Can you suggest the best way to
explain the situation to them?” If you suspect
the worst, this is a bit devious. A more direct
approach is, “I’m concerned about what
Check your assessment of the problem
Some problems seem obvious enough: embezzlement, assault, hazardous practices. But it’s
best to be absolutely sure before launching into
the issue. There are several ways to check.
• Ask to hear the other side. This means
talking to people who seem to be responsible
for the problem. For example, if there seems to
be a bias in appointments, ask to see the selection criteria and, if available, job applications.
Talk to someone on the selection panel. It
might turn out that there are very good reasons
for the appointments.
Sometimes there are other explanations even
for apparent cases of embezzlement, assault
and hazardous practices. It may be, for
example, that someone else wants to makes a
person look bad.
It’s remarkable how often people are willing
to believe the worst about someone or something without talking to the people concerned.
Some very nasty conflicts could be avoided by
this simple precaution.
You notice that a company is selling outdated stock as if it were new. This could be a
Personal assessment: what should I do?
happened on Thursday. I’d like to hear your
explanation.” If you are known for being
straightforward — in other words, blunt —
this may be okay.
In some cases, though, it is not effective to
ask to hear the other side. If you have solid
evidence of major fraud by top management,
raising your concerns is a mistake. You could
be dismissed on the spot and a cover-up initiated immediately.
• Get independent advice. To determine
whether your assessment is sensible, it can be
very helpful to talk to someone who’s not
involved. Describe the case to them and
present the evidence that you have. Ask
whether there could be an innocent explanation. Also ask whether they think the issue is
as serious as you think it is.
For example, there have been several incidents that you think reveal pervasive racist
attitudes, though the employer officially
opposes racism. Is your interpretation reasonable, or are you making a mountain out of a
molehill? Even if there is a serious problem, is
there enough evidence from these incidents to
really show it?
The sort of person who can give the most
helpful independent advice should be balanced,
concerned, sympathetic, honest and totally
trustworthy. They should be able to give a
balanced assessment, not being too biased for
or against anyone involved, and not being
distorted due to ardent views on certain issues.
They should be concerned about problems
such as corruption or racism or whatever. If
they don’t care about the problem, they are
hardly in a position to tell whether it’s really
serious. They should be reasonably sympathetic to you personally, enough to be willing
to help you be as effective as possible. They
should be honest, which means willing to tell
you what they really think even if they think
you’re wrong. Finally, they should be totally
trustworthy. You don’t want anyone repeating
your private concerns to all and sundry,
including those you suspect of causing the
There are few people who are ideal in all
these respects. Finding someone who is both
sympathetic and honest is difficult enough.
But you don’t have to find a perfect person.
Just find someone who is reasonably good and
who has time to help.
How to find someone? The best way is by
asking around and going by a person’s reputation. If others have found someone who is
honest and discreet, that is a good recommendation.
If the independent person supports your
view, well and good. If not, then you need to
reconsider. Are you still convinced that there’s
a serious problem? If so, then you might
contact another independent person. The first
person might have a bias you don’t know
If you’ve been to several independent
people and none of them thinks your concerns
are warranted, it’s time for a rethink. Perhaps
you’ve blown things out of proportion.
Perhaps it’s better to wait a while. Even if
there is a serious problem, you have little
chance of doing anything about it if you can’t
convince independent people. Maybe you
need more evidence.
Harold used to work in banks and, since
leaving, began investigating corruption in the
banking industry. However, his investigations
were hampered in various ways. Some of his
documents disappeared, people refused to talk
to him and he suspected that there was
constant surveillance of his movements. He
then approached several independent people
for their assessment. While sympathetic, they
said more evidence was needed, both of
corruption and of surveillance. Harold remains
convinced that both are occurring.
• Examine your motives When you call
attention to a problem, in principle it shouldn’t
matter what your motives are. After all, if
there’s a danger to public health, the key thing
is to address it. So what if there’s a promotion
involved for the person who exposes it?
In practice, motives are important. If your
reason for acting is personal advancement or
The whistleblower’s handbook
status, that may distort your view of what the
most serious problems are.
You discover that the boss has been tolerating minor pilfering from the storehouse. If
the boss goes, you are next in line for her
position. How does that affect your perception of the seriousness of the issue?
More importantly, if your motives are
suspect, then you may not be as effective in
acting against the problem. The reason is that
people will attribute your actions to your selfinterest.
However, if no one ever acted except with
the purest of motives, then not much would
ever be accomplished. Some situations are so
corrupt that everyone is tainted. In a corrupt
police force, sometimes the best people to
expose the problems are police who have been
involved themselves. Even if your motive is to
escape corruption charges, your willingness to
speak out can be a valuable social service.
A warning: if you are compromised by your
participation in unsavoury practices, you may
be in special danger of being victimised. Some
compromised whistleblowers are attacked out
of all proportion to what they’ve done, while
the most corrupt individuals escape unscathed.
On the other hand, being spotless is no guarantee of safety. Some whistleblowers who are
totally innocent of any wrongdoing have been
framed for major crimes.
Clarify your personal goals
After checking that your assessment of the
problem is correct, it is time to decide your
goals. That may seem obvious enough. Fix the
problem. Justice. Get everything working the
way it ought to.
Clarifying personal goals has to be more
precise than this. It needs to include what
you’d like to achieve for yourself and towards
fixing the problem, and what costs you’re
willing to bear.
Start by being as precise as possible about
your goals.
Is it to ensure that key decision makers know
about a problem?
Is it to publicise the situation so that lots of
people know about it?
Is it to rectify a particular situation?
Is it to transform an entire organisation?
Is it to expose wrongdoers?
Is it to subject wrongdoers to appropriate
Is it to obtain or regain an appropriate
position for yourself?
Is it to obtain compensation for the injustices you’ve suffered?
Is it to obtain personal satisfaction that
you’ve done what you can?
In many cases your goals are mixtures of
things, for example fixing the problem, penalising the wrongdoers and obtaining compensation. Try to separate out the different
components. Which ones are most important
to you? Is it more important to prevent future
problems or to bring wrongdoers to justice?
Try to be even more specific. If you want
to publicise the situation, would a notice to all
employees be sufficient? What about an article
in the local newspaper? If you want something
personally, what exactly would suffice? A
formal apology? A payment? How much?
It can be difficult to clarify goals, but it’s
important. In many cases individuals spend
months or years pursuing a case only to find
that they are dissatisfied with the outcome.
That’s often because their underlying goals
were different from what they thought — or
because they never thought carefully about
their goals and so didn’t have a hope of
achieving them.
Being specific about goals is a crucial first
step. Another vital step is to try to be realistic.
If your goal is to transform the organisation,
that’s possibly a lifetime task. Even to expose
wrongdoing can be a major operation.
The costs of seeking change are often much
greater and longer lasting than imagined. What
seems like it should take six months can take
six years. There can be vast financial costs. But
even more serious are the health and emotional
Personal assessment: what should I do?
costs. Your health may suffer from the stress
of the process, and your closest relationships
may be strained or broken. More details are
given in chapter 9, including advice on reducing
these consequences.
To work out the likely impacts, think of the
worst scenario that seems possible. Then
multiply the costs — time, money, health,
emotions — by ten. Yes, things could be
mighty tough!
By adopting wise strategies and precautions, you can reduce the harmful consequences. Who knows, you might be one of the
lucky ones who comes out of the process
better off than before.
Lots of people think their case is so good
that they can’t lose. That’s an illusion. It’s far
better to be prepared for the worst. That way
present situation
We don’t control everything about this
process, of course. Other people get in the
way with their own actions, and there are all
sorts of other factors, including opportunities,
constraints (time, money, resources), interac-
present situation
In this diagram, the bottom level — from
present to future situation — involves what
actually happens. The top level — analysis,
strategy, goals — involves thinking about what
Analysis is what we do to understand the
present situation. It’s valuable to know, for
you will be ready when things get really
Build a strategy
A strategy is essentially a plan for getting
something done — a plan that takes into
account where you are to start with, what
resources you have and what obstacles you
face, and where you’re trying to go. If you’re
going to be successful, developing a strategy
can make a big difference. A fire brigade
without a plan can only succeed by being
lucky, and the same applies to others.
Let’s look at things in terms of a movement
from the present to the future. We are in a
certain situation now; we take various actions
and use various methods; we end up in some
other situation down the track.
future situation
tions between people and pure chance. In order
to do the best we can, we need to understand
and plan. This can be thought of this way:
future situation
example, how an organisation operates, what
your own skills and resources are, and who
your likely supporters and opponents are. To
carry out an analysis, you can study books on
organisational theory, ask knowledgeable
people and build a mental model of your own
about how society operates.
The whistleblower’s handbook
Analysis, if taken seriously, is an enormous
task. Many scholars spend their whole careers
undertaking an analysis of some small facet of
social life. What you need is an analysis
oriented to practical action. You don’t need to
know things for their intellectual value, but
rather so that you can figure out what’s likely
to happen when you do something.
Goals are what you want to achieve. If
you’re going to get there, you need to know
what they are. As discussed earlier, clarifying
your goals is vital. There’s a danger in
spending too much time on analysis and not
enough on working out goals.
S t r a t e g y is your plan for going from
present to future. It can be considered to be an
analysis of actions and methods. It builds on
your analysis of the present situation and
takes into account your goals for the future. It
includes planning for contingencies. Developing an effective strategy is vital.
Elaine is a doctor at a hospital who is
concerned that there are far too many referrals
for a procedure using an expensive scanner,
when actually a simple visual examination
would do in most cases. She thinks this is
because of pressures to justify the expense of
the scanner. As part of her analysis of the
situation, she finds that some medical
researchers at the hospital hold a patent on the
scanner and are pushing strongly for its use.
Also, many other doctors are generally in
favour of high-technology medicine. Her
specific goal is to have a formal reassessment
of the value of the scanner. A more general goal
is to reduce the bias in favour of highly expensive medical equipment. She decides to circulate a memo asking for a comparison of the
scanner versus visual examination.
To her surprise, she is personally attacked
at the next staff meeting for questioning the
scanner. She also starts receiving excessive
scrutiny from one particular senior doctor, and
is assigned to less pleasant and less stimulating
rounds. After talking to a few others — only
some of whom are sympathetic — she decides
to lie low for a while, collect more information
about the scanner and its effectiveness, and to
contact a local medical consumers group. (And
so on.)
Elaine’s initial strategy was circulating a memo,
which seemed reasonable in the situation.
When that didn’t work, she reassessed the
situation — more analysis. In fact, the
response to her memo revealed a lot about the
dynamics of the hospital. Sometimes action is
the best way to find out how things really
operate. Elaine is now trying a new strategy.
She may also reassess her goals in the light of
her further experiences.
This example illustrates an important point:
analyses, strategies and goals need to be regularly examined and updated. You might decide
to continue as before, but you need to be open
to change.
One of the hardest things is to know when
to stop. After spending two years in a court
battle, should you settle? After battling the
organisation for five years, should you resign
and leave? These are difficult sorts of decisions. They need to be made.
One way to think about this is to look at
the “opportunity cost” of your activities. If
you weren’t battling the organisation, you
might instead be spending your time working
somewhere else, and perhaps helping to
achieve the same or different goals. There is a
“cost” in your present activities, namely not
taking up other opportunities, or in other
words doing different things.
To get an insight into this, think of the most
general formulation of your goals. Are they to
achieve personal satisfaction, or help promote
accountability? Then think of other strategies
— other jobs, other campaigns, other places —
to achieve these goals. Your task is the same:
to work out the best strategy for your own
Before taking action, prepare.
• Document the problem: letters, photos, recordings, statements …
• Know the context (consult well-informed people, consult research findings).
• Propose solutions.
• Get advice and support: family, friends, co-workers, others.
Document the problem
Documenting the problem is the foundation of
success. Without documentation, you have to
depend on other people backing you — and all
too often they won’t. With documentation,
you at least have a chance.
Theresa, an experienced worker, was a bit
disturbed to hear from her boss at a staff
meeting that a contract had been given to the
Smith Consultancy without an open bidding
process, but she set aside her doubts when the
urgency and special requirements were
explained. The next week it was reported in
the press that the Smith Consultancy had been
charged with various crimes including bribery.
She confronted her boss about it, only to be
told that she must have misheard him — they
had only been considering giving the contract
to Smith’s. Her co-workers either refused to
talk about it or said the boss must be right.
For evidence to have credibility, usually it
must be in permanent form.
Letters, memos, reports These are bread and
butter of most documentation. Ensure that you
have copies of anything that might be useful.
Sometimes written records are self-explanatory, but often it is helpful to keep notes of
any necessary information. For example, if a
document doesn’t have a date, add a note
saying when you received it.
You can create your own records too. If
you’ve just been to an important meeting, it
can be useful to write a letter to the convenor
summarising what happened. “Helen — Just
to confirm, at today’s meeting it was agreed
that I would head a task force …”
Photos Sometimes a picture is worth a
thousand words, for example in cases of environmental damage or physical assault. But
pictures don’t usually explain their context.
It’s vital to record the date, time, location,
photographer, and any other relevant information. If possible, have another person verify
the information.
Recordings A recording is a powerful
challenge to people who claim they didn’t say
something. As in the case of photos, record the
time, location and other details.
Diaries If you are caught up in a difficult
situation, keeping a diary is an excellent idea.
You should record any events of significance,
giving time, place, situation, people present
and your interpretation of what happened. A
diary is far more accurate than memories if you
ever need to check the sequence of events or
determine who told you something first. You
can write as much as you like, but a brief
summary is quite sufficient: “Tuesday 14
September 1999: Just after arriving at work at
8.30, Fred told me that three of us — him,
Cath and me — would be carpeted because of
the leak about the budget blowout.” A diary is
also an excellent way to get some of the worry
out of your system.
Statements by witnesses Since witnesses
can leave or change their minds about what
they saw or heard, getting a statement can be a
good idea. If you have just attended a crucial
meeting where a shady practice was discussed
or where an unscrupulous attack was made on
you or someone else, write your own statement and try to get others to sign it, for
example saying “This is an accurate account of
what occurred.”
Sunil had been calling for an open and
accountable process for granting building
licences, as there had long been suspicion that
there was bias in the process. As a result, his
work had come under intense scrutiny by the
department head. He was prepared when he
was called to a meeting with the head to talk
about his performance. In a previous job, he
had been caught unawares in a gruelling dressing down by three managers. This time he took
along a co-worker as a witness — someone
known to be honest and no one’s pawn. He
also took along a tape recorder and asked to
record the meeting. The head said he hoped it
wouldn’t be necessary. The meeting was a
low-key affair. Afterwards, Sunil wrote a letter
to the head summarising what had been said,
and had his witness sign a copy.
How much documentation is enough? Probably more than what you have! Often it’s better
to lie low and collect more evidence rather than
risk a premature disclosure. The bigger and
more serious the problem, the more evidence
you need. In the case of deep-rooted corruption, for example, you need enough material to
counter highly determined efforts to deny the
problem. This includes:
• destruction of documents;
• systematic lying;
• manufacture of false documents;
• elaborate frame-ups.
Documents are the foundation of your case,
but no one likes ploughing through a giant pile
of paper. You also need to write a concise
summary to put everything into context.
There’s more on this in chapter 7.
It is wise to keep a copies of crucial documents in a secure place. If your only copies are
all in a file in your office, you might find them
missing one morning — or even find that
you’ve been fired and locked out of your
office. If you’re a community activist, your
documents could be taken in a burglary. So
keep copies in a location besides your usual
one, plus perhaps with a trusted friend or legal
Jean Lennane advises having at least four
copies in different locations, in case of a raid.
She says the key thing to protect is evidence.
If in doubt about the relevance of a document,
keep it plus copies.
What risks should you take to obtain documents? That’s a difficult question. It raises
legal and ethical issues. In many situations it is
a violation of the law or formal policy to make
copies of documents, take them off the
premises or show them to outsiders. If you are
caught violating procedures, you could be sued
or dismissed. This could happen even if lots of
people violate the same procedures. Selective
attack is the essence of victimisation.
If the documents reveal a multimillion dollar
scam or a serious hazard to health, then you
may consider that you are justified in violating
the law. This is especially the case if the main
effect of the regulations is to prevent public
scrutiny and cover up corruption. On the other
hand, there might be other ethical factors
involved. For example, the documents might
include personal details about clients or
patients. There are, after all, some good
reasons for confidentiality of documents. To
choose the most appropriate course of action,
you need to use your judgement and to get
advice from people you can trust.
What about making recordings surreptitiously? It’s now possible to buy microcassette recorders that enable you to record
conversations and meetings unobtrusively. In
some jurisdictions, secret recordings are illegal,
such as some recordings of telephone conversations. But more important than this is the
effect on the way people will react to you if
they find out you have recorded conversations
without telling them. Basically, they won’t
The whistleblower’s handbook
trust you as much, if at all. That’s a serious
For ordinary purposes, secret recording is
not a good idea, especially if you hope to
continue interacting with the same people. It
may be warranted in the case of serious
corruption, such as undercover operations
against corrupt police or in the case of serious
harassment. If you don’t intend remaining at a
job, the impact on your relations with coworkers may not be so important.
Know the context
It is extremely valuable to be able to put your
own situation in context. That means comparing it to similar situations and comparing the
nature of the problems and the types of
solutions proposed.
Maria was new to the job. She was disturbed when Jonah, a senior co-worker, made
sexual jokes, stood close to her and touched
her on the arm and shoulder and asked her out
for dinner. She wasn’t sure whether to avoid
him or file a complaint. She talked to other
women who worked with Jonah and also read
some books on sexual harassment. She decided
that she’d have to be firm with Jonah — she
told him to cut the jokes and give her some
more space and that she wanted to keep their
relationship professional. They got on fine
after that. Maria also warned other new
workers what to expect.
In other cases, the problem turns out to be
more serious. Then it’s time to start documenting everything.
In the case of large-scale problems, you
need to find out how pervasive they are,
whether others are aware of them and whether
anyone is trying to do anything about them. It
is sensible to join others, or to get their
support if you decide to take action.
Alexi worked in the subsidiary of a multinational corporation. He noticed that the subsidiary was buying inputs from the parent at
inflated prices and selling back output at
unrealistic discounts. The result was the
subsidiary made no money, thereby reducing
its taxes. This benefited the corporation overall
but starved the government where the subsidiary was based. Alexi was concerned about the
manipulation even if it was technically legal.
He started investigating and found that this
system of transfer payments to avoid tax was
commonplace among multinationals and that
some governments and consumer groups were
trying to do something about it.
There are several good ways to learn about
the context.
• Talk to experienced and knowledgeable
people — old-timers with long memories.
Often they can provide insights unavailable
any other way. As well, they may be able to
tell you about other attempts to change things
— and what happened to the would-be
reformers. Did they suffer reprisals, quit
trying, or end up being rewarded?
• Talk to campaigners — people who are
taking action about social problems. They
often have a really good grasp of why things
happen the way they do. If you are concerned
that unemployment figures are being fiddled to
make politicians look good, talk to activists
who deal with jobs, poverty or social justice.
• Find out if anyone has done research into
the area. This could be academics or investigative journalists. If you’re concerned about the
oil industry, ask at the local university or
media outlet for the person who knows the
most about it. When you find someone who
knows something about the topic, ask them
who are the most knowledgeable people in the
region or country. People doing research in a
topic usually know who are the top people in
the field. This is the quickest way to tap into
relevant expertise — or to find out that there
isn’t any.
• Undertake your own investigation. You
can find out what has been written already by
going through library catalogues and indexes
and the internet. Librarians can help you get
started. If you don’t know much about doing
investigations, you may be able to find an
academic, a good student or an independent
researcher who is willing to help you.
If your goal is doing something about the
problem, then learning about the context is not
a goal in itself, but just a way to improve your
chance of success. You are looking for insights
that are practical: they should give you a better
idea of what to do and what not to do. Be
wary of academics who just provide intellectual insights, which are all very well for scholarly journals and conferences but not much use
otherwise. Be wary of journalists or activists
who want to use you for their own purposes
— a story or a campaign — without concern
about your own goals.
Lesley Pinson comments
It is extremely important that a person who
has blown the whistle — or who is contemplating blowing it — learns as much as they
can. Understanding as much as possible helps
to minimise the confusion whistleblowers feel
and maximises the individual’s ability to make
the best decision about tactics. “Information is
Propose solutions
Documenting and exposing the problem is
vital, but what then? If the problem is
revealed, does that mean that powerholders
will “do the right thing” and fix it up? Hardly.
There are several standard responses.
•1• Complaints and complainants are
ignored. A powerful establishment can tolerate
a bit of dissent, as long as no one takes much
•2• Complainants are attacked. If the
complaints become too loud or are taken
seriously by too many people, an attack on
the complainants is mounted.
•3• Reassuring statements are made. If the
pressure is too great to ignore or suppress,
then the problem may be acknowledged and
said to be being dealt with. Often this is just
public relations.
•4• A few superficial changes are made. To
ease the pressure, some new policies might be
announced or a few individuals sacrificed —
but the situation is really unchanged.
•5• Steps are taken that genuinely reduce
the problem.
Most challengers never get past responses 1
and 2. But if enough pressure can be mounted,
then there is a chance of real change. The
biggest risk is getting stuck with responses 3
or 4. Your aim is to push past these to
response 5.
One way to help achieve response 5 is to
propose solutions as well as highlight
problems. The solution needs to be challenging
yet achievable. It should be realistic and sound
sensible. It should be difficult to fake.
As an experienced accountant with a
successful career in several industries, Enrico
discovered a massive insurance fraud. He fed
information to a small but effective consumer
group with links to a few trusted politicians.
As a result of publicity, the government set up
a commission of inquiry into the industry. The
commission was better than most. Several top
corporate figures lost their jobs (and later were
quietly employed elsewhere). The commission
made some bland recommendations, but no
laws were passed — the industry had some
powerful political friends.
Enrico was far more effective than others
before him, half a dozen of whom had given up
or lost their jobs after speaking out. But Enrico
and his allies needed to tie their exposure of
the fraud with specific suggestions for how to
fix it — such as legal provision for oversight
with consumer-group input and public interest
disclosure clauses in employment contracts.
It seems to be asking a lot of someone to
not only expose a problem but also come up
with a solution. Surely it’s enough just to
reveal the problem! Although it is extremely
challenging to come up with an appropriate
solution, this is a good discipline. Thinking
through the sorts of solutions that would be
satisfactory and saleable can be helpful in
deciding the best way to document and expose
the problem. Best of all, there may be a way to
package together a problem and a solution.
The whistleblower’s handbook
Get advice and support
Before embarking, it is absolutely vital to
obtain advice and support. This applies
whether you are approaching someone who
you think copied your work inappropriately
or whether you are tackling organised crime.
Talk to everyone you live with and/or are close
to, including partner, parents, children and
siblings. Explain what you know and what
you’re planning to do — and what might
happen. If they are willing to back you, then
you are in a much stronger position. If they are
strongly opposed to your plans, you need to
think again. In this situation, there is no right
or wrong decision. You need to weigh up the
likely consequences in light of your own
Remember also that in some cases family
members may come under attack because of
your stand. If you are publicly attacked,
perhaps even framed, then your children might
be scorned at school or your sister could be
threatened with losing her job. Even short of
these consequences, your family will be
greatly affected by what happens to you:
enormous stress, loss of career opportunities,
perhaps unemployment.
On the other hand, standing up for what
you believe can be enormously empowering.
Self-respect and mutual respect can make up
for a lot of other losses.
Talk to those you trust the most. But be aware
that many “friends” may turn away if you
change. They wish you wouldn’t talk so much
about the problems of embezzlement, drug
cover-ups or paedophilia. They’d prefer
watching sport or talking about the kids —
“lighten up,” they might say. If you take a
strong stand on an issue, you may lose some
friends but gain others.
When you become really involved in the
issues, friends and family can be helpful in
giving an outsider’s viewpoint. It’s easy to
become obsessed with details and lose sight of
the overall picture. Ask for advice on how to
present your ideas. But don’t overstep the
mark by letting your concerns dominate the
Friends who are sympathetic can be very
helpful. They may have contacts, skills and
sage advice.
Try to sense when you are straining the
relationship. If your best friend asks for more
details, proceed. If she repeatedly tries to
change the subject, that’s a different signal.
Co-workers may be your friends too, but their
commitment is not likely to be as high. Don’t
be surprised if many of them turn away when
the heat is on.
Nevertheless, maintaining good relationships with at least some co-workers is
extremely valuable. They can give you feedback about how others see your actions, and
what impact your initiatives are having. You
don’t need to ask them to support you. Some
may volunteer to do that. But just maintaining
open channels of communication is important.
The more sensitive the issue, and the less
public your role, the more caution is needed in
confiding with co-workers. Some of them may
go straight to the boss with everything you
say — not to mention a few exaggerations for
good measure!
Trade unions and professional associations
If your union or association is behind you, you
have a powerful ally indeed. But don’t count
on support. Many union officials are unwilling
to tackle management on anything except
narrow industrial issues. They may not act
unless there is overwhelming support from the
membership — and sometimes not even then!
Some union officials are tools of management,
or just hope to obtain a promotion by not
rocking the boat.
Get to know your union officials and study
their track records. If it’s a principled union or
you know the right people, you may be able to
get support — and that is a tremendous
advantage. But be prepared for little or no
support. Even worse, the union may actively
oppose you.
Isla MacGregor comments
Some union officials don’t want to support
whistleblowers because in doing so they might
attract attention to their own organisation’s
lack of accountability or democratic process.
Some senior management people, particularly
in the public sector, deliberately join unions to
frustrate attempts by co-workers to enlist
support of unions in discrimination and
victimisation disputes or public interest
Lesley Pinson comments
Remember that if you are complaining about
the activities of co-workers, they will also be
union members, so your union will have a
conflict as to whom it will provide support.
There are lots of others you can contact to
obtain advice and support. This includes social
activists, journalists, politicians, lawyers and
many others. This is discussed further in
chapter 7.
Lesley Pinson comments
It is useful to seek legal advice as early as
possible. Although this might involve a
financial outlay, it could save greater costs if
you later end up with legal problems that
could have been avoided.
You are also well advised to keep your
doctor informed about what you are proposing
to do. S/he might be able to advise useful stress
management techniques and will be better able
to attest to your sanity and stress-related
symptoms, should this ever be necessary.
Historically, whistleblowers have tended to
leave seeking legal or medical advice until far
too late, typically only when they have
serious legal or medical problems. They then
have unrealistic expectations that their lawyers
and doctors will be able to fix their problems.
It is also useful and empowering to know you
have the support of a sympathetic lawyer and
doctor, should you need it.
You’ve made a careful assessment of the
problem (chapter 4). You’ve collected more
documents than you know what to do with,
studied the situation at length, formulated a
solution and obtained advice from various
sources (this chapter). What next? There are
two basic approaches. You can proceed
through official channels (chapter 6) or build
support (chapter 7) or both.
Official channels
• Whistleblowers seldom get any satisfaction from official channels such as internal
grievance procedures, government agencies or the courts.
• Official channels seldom deliver justice because they narrow the issues and don’t have
enough resources or will power to take on powerful offenders.
• To make a decision about which official channels to use, list possible options, investigate
promising ones and weigh up their likely benefits and costs.
• Improve your chances of winning by learning about the process, polishing your
submissions and choosing your advocates carefully.
There are all sorts of ways you can try to get a
response, or obtain justice, through established
procedures. Some of the possible channels are:
names: grievance, conciliation, mediation and
appeals procedures, sometimes involving trade
union representatives. A professional association may have procedures to deal with
breaches of professional ethics.
Then there are various government bodies.
Depending on the issue, one can contact the
police, the department of consumer affairs,
finance department, education department, and
many others. Sometimes there is an ombudsman’s office or anticorruption body that deals
with problems from many areas.
If there are layers of government, this
expands the number of official channels. There
might be local government, state or provincial
government and national government, with
opportunites to make complaints or formal
submissions. As well as going to government
bodies, it’s possible to go directly to individual
politicians — at any level of government —
though this often gets referred to government
departments. Politicians can set up further
channels, such as grand juries and royal
Finally, there are the courts, which can
come in various types, such as small claims
courts, family courts and industrial courts.
Courts are also at various levels, culminating in
a country’s highest court and going beyond,
for example to the International Court of
Justice. Some of the other official channels
• bosses, senior managers, chief executive
• boards of management or trustees
• internal grievance procedures
• shareholders’ meetings
• professional association procedures
• ombudsmen
• regulatory agencies
• antidiscrimination bodies
• anticorruption bodies
• auditors-general or inspectors general
• government departments
• politicians
• parliamentary hearings
• commissions of inquiry
• courts.
Within each of these categories, there may be
many variations. When operating as an
employee within an organisation, a typical
first step is a verbal or written report to one’s
boss or someone higher up. Then, if the
response is unsatisfactory, a complaint might
be made to higher people in the organisation.
Sometimes there is a board of management
with representatives from outside the organisation. There often are formal internal mechanisms to deal with problems, with various
The whistleblower’s handbook
have international analogues, notably through
the United Nations.
The failure of official channels
On the face of it, there are ample opportunities
to obtain justice. For those unfamiliar with the
system, it seems reasonable to presume that
the official channels usually do their job. If
there is corruption or other injustice that can’t
be dealt with at a local level, then anyone with
good enough documentation should be able to
find officials at a higher level to fix it up. After
all, surely, that’s what all these bodies and
procedures were set up to do.
Unfortunately, the usual experience is just
the opposite. If the problem can’t be fixed up
locally, the official channels very seldom
provide a solution. Even worse, they can chew
up unbelievable amounts of money and time
and provide an excuse for not dealing with the
The aim of this handbook is to suggest
ways to help people develop more effective
strategies to achieve their goals. It is not to tell
anyone what to do. It may be that using official channels is the best option in your case.
But before deciding, it’s worth looking at some
of the evidence and arguments.
Lots of whistleblowers start out by believing that the system works. That’s why they
reported problems through official channels in
the first place: they expected that officials
would investigate and address the problem.
When, instead, they are attacked, whistleblowers often try other official channels. They still
believe that the system will work — eventually. They believe that somewhere there is
someone with power who will recognise the
problem and implement a just solution. When
one official channel fails, they try another. The
process can take many years. Is it worth it?
Later on in this chapter, I tell about how to
proceed through official channels if that’s what
you decide to do. But first I’ll explain why
these channels fail so often.
I’m emphasising this point because it is
contrary to the instinctive response of so
many people. There is a deep need to believe
that the world is just. This is most obvious in
Hollywood movies where the good guys
always win, even against impossible odds.
Movie-makers portray good triumphing over
evil largely because that’s what audiences want
to see. Realistic stories, in which corrupt
people rise to power and are never brought to
justice, while the lives of honest citizens are
blighted, are not welcome. Even rarer are realistic plots that show how to be an effective
agent of change.
In twenty years of studying cases of
suppression of dissent, and hearing hundreds
of accounts of struggles through the system,
there is not a single example I can remember in
which official channels provided a prompt and
straightforward solution to a serious problem.
The only cases in which there has been some
degree of success through formal channels are
those where there was also a process of building support, often involving publicity. On the
other hand, I have heard untold numbers of
harrowing stories of reprisal, victimisation and
scapegoating — and the failure of official
channels. Indeed, the failures of the official
channels often create a sense of grievance
worse than the original problem and reprisals.
Although people’s stories vary enormously in
terms of the issue and organisation, the
response of official bodies is almost always
the same. Indeed, often I can predict the next
development in the story with considerable
Some people use official channels with the
expectation that they will provide justice.
Later, they may say “I guess I was naive.”
Some persist even in the face of repeated
failures, or even after hearing about the evidence of other people’s lack of satisfaction.
They often think that their case is different.
After all, they know they are right. But that’s
not the issue. Lots of people have truth on
their side, with fully documented cases, and
still lose.
It is the amazing similarities of so many
people’s experiences that helped me reach my
Official channels
views about the failures of official channels.
Then I talked to others who have a lot of
experience in this area and found that they had
reached identical conclusions.
One of them is Jean Lennane, a key figure in
Whistleblowers Australia. A whistleblower
herself, she has talked to hundreds of whistleblowers and also carried out a small survey of
the responses they received from various
official channels. Her conclusion is brutal. It is
that you can’t rely on any of the official
channels. Indeed, the only thing you can rely
on is that the official channels won’t work.
These conclusions are based on a wealth of
personal experience, but that could be a limitation. Maybe personal biases are involved. For
those who prefer a more quantitative
approach, Bill De Maria’s research is a useful
tonic. He developed a careful definition of
whistleblowing and carried out a large survey
of whistleblowers, asking many questions.
Among them were questions about the effectiveness of various official bodies. The result:
whistleblowers obtained some degree of help
in less than one out of ten approaches to an
official body. Even worse, in quite a few cases
whistleblowers felt that they were worse off
after approaching certain official bodies than
before. In these cases, the official channels
were not just useless — they were harmful.
(For references, see the appendix.)
These results apply to whistleblowers —
people who have spoken out in the public
interest. Bill De Maria’s results are for
employees who made disclosures to a person
in authority. What about the worker just doing
their job who reports a safety problem or
raises concerns about bias in an appointment?
In many such cases, the report or concern is
listened to and addressed, with no reprisals.
This is business as usual, with no giant stakes
or battles.
Sometimes, a person making a routine
report or comment inadvertently aggravates
the wrong person or puts a finger on deep
corruption. Or maybe the person making the
report is not satisfied with the response and
persists in raising the matter. Whatever the
reason, the situation goes beyond routine
processes. It is at that point that an employee
may decide to use a grievance procedure or
make a report to a regulatory body. It is also at
that point that the conclusion “the official
channels seldom work” kicks in.
Lesley Pinson comments
This may seem extremely negative to the
prospective whistleblower but most whistleblowers would say that had they known this
at the outset, it might not have changed what
they did but it would have changed their
expectations and lessened the psychological
impact of their experience of systems failure.
It is extremely important to be aware of the
severe limitations of official channels before
you try to use them.
Why official channels don’t work
It helps to understand why whistleblowers so
seldom find any satisfaction through official
channels. If the explanation has to do with the
features of particular agencies, then hope
remains that other agencies might be different.
But if the explanation is about all sorts of
official channels, that’s a different story.
Official channels always involve a narrowing of the issues. A case might involve harassment by a range of methods, for example snide
and hostile comments, excessive monitoring of
one’s work and unrealistic expectations,
followed by a disciplinary period on special
conditions (set up to make the employee fail)
and dismissal. When this case is taken to a
grievance committee or a court, every part of
the complaint or case has to be documented.
Snide comments are hard to prove, and by
themselves are not likely to be considered
serious. Proving that one’s work has been
excessively monitored is difficult, since it often
depends on an intimate knowledge of the job.
The special conditions imposed may seem
reasonable enough to an outsider who doesn’t
understand the realities of work. Co-workers
who know what’s involved may be afraid to
The whistleblower’s handbook
testify. Finally, the dismissal may be completely unfair, but nevertheless proper and
legal according to the letter of the employment
Lesley Pinson comments
It has also been difficult, in the experience of
most whistleblowers, to prove that harassment, victimisation, dismissal, etc., have
occurred as a direct result of the fact that they
have exposed wrongdoing. Employers use all
sorts of tactics and legal machinations to
directly attack the whistleblower and the whistleblower’s sanity, competence, work record,
etc., to divert attention from the issue exposed.
The personal experience of the victim is
that there has been an injustice. Often the
person targeted for such treatment is conscientious and especially committed to the official
goal of the organisation. Yet the outcome of a
hearing may turn on whether a person arrived
slightly late to work, whether someone really
raised their voice, whether the employment act
permitted communicating directly to higher
management, or any number of equally trivial
matters. By dealing with specific actions and
by arguing over the meaning of regulations and
laws, the victim’s experience is transformed
into an administrative and technical issue. This
can actually compound the feeling of injustice.
Even when there is a victory, the process may
not be satisfying because it has not addressed
the person’s whole experience. To spend
weeks or months preparing a case and sit
through days of hearings on technical points
can be quite disempowering. A victory may be
sweet partly because it’s such a contrast to the
bitter process.
Victories, though, are not common. A large
proportion of complainants suffer the bitter
process and end up losing — and are worse off
than before they started. Others win comprehensively in one jurisdiction only to find that
the other side appeals, requiring months or
years more effort with no guarantee of ultimate
success. Yet others win and return to work
only to encounter new patterns of harassment
and victimisation.
The next question is, why are formal channels so narrow and unsupportive of complainants? One reason is that many of these
channels are set up by the organisations
against whom complaints are being made.
Consider a grievance procedure set up by
the police, an education system, or a corporation. Almost always, those who run the
procedure are senior officials. Often the
complaint pits a junior person against a more
senior person, or involves a challenge by a
junior person against a policy approved by
Who will the officials side with? In just
about any organisation, officials back the
person with more authority. Exceptions are
extremely rare. If the complaint comes from
someone outside the organisation — a
customer or client — the organisation is
always backed against the outsider (except
when the complaint is orchestrated by officials
to target someone inside).
A manager may be a ruthless bully, may be
incompetent, may be corrupt, or may introduce dubious and dangerous policies. Nevertheless, higher management almost always
supports this manager against challenges from
below or outside.
Sometimes this is because of personal links.
The manager may have friends in high places,
maybe even an entire network of mutual backscratchers.
A deeper reason is that the system of
hierarchy depends on maintaining lines of
authority. If junior workers are able to win in a
challenge to a manager, then what’s to stop
them challenging bosses higher up the ladder?
Maintaining the hierarchy is crucial to managerial prerogative. All the rhetoric about efficiency and fair play goes out the window
when it comes to protecting the formal system
through which power is exercised.
Imagine, then, a grievance committee that
decided to be independent. If it ruled against
senior figures, those figures would become
Official channels
enemies of the committee members. The
committee members would come under
scrutiny by top management. They might be
replaced or come under attack themselves. And
what about a grievance committee that ruled
against the chief executive officer? Who has
ever heard of such an amazing event? Usually
grievance committees are established to
formally report to top management. In the end,
they are not independent sources of power,
but are subordinate to the top officials in the
organisation. Usually they never think of
stepping out of line. But if they do, there are
powerful sanctions against an escalation of the
It is possible to achieve small victories
through internal grievance procedures, for
example in the case of blatant violations that
threaten to be a public relations disaster if they
are not dealt with internally. It’s difficult
enough to achieve small victories. But when
the problem goes right to the top of the organisation or involves people with strong
connections, then it becomes extremely
difficult to win.
Since internal appeal mechanisms are so
compromised, the obvious solution is
independent appeal bodies. That’s the
rationale for ombudsmen, anticorruption
bodies, auditors-general, antidiscrimination
bodies and the courts. The principle of
independence is vital, but the reality often is
not so inspiring. There are several reasons
Sometimes appeal bodies that are nominally
independent become pawns of the organisations they are supposed to police. They might
be staffed with personnel who have the same
values as those organisations. Often they
might be former employees. For example, top
management in a government consumer affairs
bureau might be more sympathetic to corporations than to consumers.
In other cases, organisational self-interest is
the key to the weakness of appeal bodies. To
maintain funding, the body can’t afford to
offend too many powerful individuals. In
trying to promote compliance to regulations, a
softly-softly approach is taken, which to
outsiders may seem like a do-nothing
approach. Soon the appeal body is fatally
Other bodies retain some degree of
commitment to their formal goals, but are
drastically under-resourced. Complaints and
requests pour in, but there simply aren’t
enough workers to deal with a fraction of
them. A single worker may have to deal with
50 or more cases at a time. Complainants who
expect a full-scale investigation into their case
are usually disappointed.
Finally, in those rare cases where an
independent body takes a really crusading
stand, it becomes vulnerable to attack. To deal
with abuses of power in a major sector of
society usually means exposing a pervasive
failure to act by governments and corporations. An independent body that threatens
powerful groups will be smeared, have
personnel changed, have its mandate changed
and have its funding removed. In fact, it will be
dealt with in exactly the way that whistleblowers are commonly treated.
Some scholars who analyse these things
believe that appeal bodies and laws are established mainly for symbolic purposes. An
anticorruption agency or whistleblower legislation gives the public the impression that the
government takes corruption seriously.
Actually, these mechanisms may be set up to
fail, and may fail miserably. Whistleblowers
may be worse off, since they have the illusion
that help is available, and this may delay or
deter them from taking other, more effective
Case study
Writing to authorities: is it worthwhile?
People write many thousands of letters to
politicians and government departments about
corruption, dangers to the public or whatever
the correspondent is concerned about. Indeed,
some individuals have written hundreds of
letters on their own. Is this a worthwhile
The whistleblower’s handbook
method of getting results?
Speaking to a politician face-to-face or by
phone often can produce better results than a
letter, though even in these cases a follow-up
letter is useful. But it can be quite difficult to
actually get to speak to a politician. As well, a
letter has the advantage of providing a permanent record.
If you write a letter to the Prime Minister
or some other minister, it is normally referred
to the relevant department. It is passed down
the bureaucratic hierarchy to some public
servant who is assigned the responsibility of
drafting a reply. The draft is then passed back
up the hierarchy, sometimes being modified on
the way. It is quite unusual for a minister to
actually read a reply, even when his or her
name appears at the bottom of the letter,
which is not very often for “important” politicians. What you receive is a response from
some public servant.
I talked to three public servants who gave
me candid comments on how the system
operates. I’ll start with the most optimistic
Chris is a relatively new public servant who
drafts replies to letters written to a leading
minister. She is told by others to be as bland as
possible. However, she prefers to be more
conscientious. As well as finding out the other
side of the story to that of the letter-writer,
she sometimes will follow up the issue by
ringing other departments to ensure that some
action is taken. For example, if the matter falls
within the jurisdiction of a state government,
she will write a note or ring relevant people to
make sure they respond, instead of just writing
back to the letter-writer to say that the matter
is one for the state government. She says that a
small percentage of public servants go out of
their way to help letter-writers, but most give
perfunctory responses.
Chris recommends that letter-writers ask
one or two specific questions. For example,
“Is the minister aware of X? What are you
going to do about it? I’m looking forward to
your answer.” Such direct questions are more
difficult to wriggle out of. She also says that
there is lots of shuffling of letters between
departments to find the right place. Therefore,
you should find out beforehand exactly who
you should write to. Also, send copies to
other departments to make sure you are not
fobbed off. Chris also recommends sending
copies to opposition ministers. (Since providing these comments to me, Chris has left the
public service for a different career. She was
not the right sort of person to thrive as a
public servant!)
Thomas has years of experience in a major
government department. He says that an
individual person’s complaint is normally
ignored or dismissed. The department can stall
by interpreting regulations differently, not
responding, delaying through referral to
committees, and a host of other methods.
Public servants are trained in how to respond
to protect current policy, in other words how
to lie.
In Thomas’s view, writing letters will only
have an impact if the writer represents a
powerful force, such as a large number of
people or prestigious figures such as judges, in
which case writing may not be required
anyway. The other time writing can have an
impact is when potentially damaging disclosures might be made unless action is taken.
Such disclosures could be made to the media.
According to Thomas, media coverage is
detested by bureaucrats and is the best way to
get action. It is a waste of time for a whistleblower just to write a letter, since the power of
the whistleblower comes from publicity.
Chris notes that when it comes to
potentially damaging disclosures, contacting
opposition politicians is sometimes effective.
They want to embarrass the government, at
least on some issues, especially through asking
questions in parliament.
Alan has an even more cynical view of
writing letters. He believes that many letters
from whistleblowers, even though sent to
different departments, are referred to the same
department where they are answered by the
Official channels
same person! This is quite possible since there
are very detailed systems of numbering and
tracking of letters. Thus, a whistleblower may
have the illusion of contacting different
authorities when actually being thwarted in the
same way over and over. Alan would go even
further to suggest that writing to the government is a way for a small group of public
servants to keep tabs on whistleblowers.
There are a few public servants and politicians who will do what they can for you.
However, the general message from Chris,
Thomas and Alan, plus others I’ve talked to, is
that writing letters to government is largely a
waste of time.
Making a decision
It’s hard to give specific advice here about
whether certain agencies or laws are likely to
be helpful, whether it is the Merit Protection
Review Agency, the False Claims Act or the
Anti-Corruption Commission. There are too
many variables to say much reliably.
• Each country has its own set of official
channels. Some countries have ombudsmen,
some don’t. Some have regulatory bodies for
particular industries or professions, some
don’t. At the end of this book, the “Contacts”
section gives a few general comments about
appeal bodies in several countries.
• Different states, regions and organisations
have specific official channels.
• Things change. New laws are introduced.
Effective agencies become muzzled, gutted or
just lose steam. Ineffective agencies are given a
new lease on life. Good advice on where to go
one year may be outdated the next.
• The choice of what channel to try depends
sensitively on the case: what the issues are,
how good the evidence is, how much you and
others are willing to support it, and other
Because of these variables, you need to find
out for yourself about the most appropriate
channel or channels for your purposes.
Luckily, the general rules for doing this are
• List possible options.
• Investigate promising options.
• Weigh up the benefits and costs of the
most promising options.
The first step is to list possible options. There
are several standard types.
• Grievance or appeal procedures internal to
an organisation.
• Processes run by a trade union or professional association, such as a medical
complaints panel.
• Government agencies, such as ombudsmen, police, antidiscrimination boards and
regulatory bodies.
• Courts, including specialist courts such as
industrial courts.
• Bodies with specific short-term briefs
such as parliamentary committees and royal
Just listing all the possibilities can be quite
a task and may require some asking around. If
you can find someone who has tried several
options, that’s very helpful. Sometimes ringing
a staff person in one of the agencies can
provide information about other options. If
you’re worried about revealing your involvement in an area, have a friend ring up to ask
what someone should do who wants to have a
problem investigated.
It may seem like a lot of fuss and bother to
list all these possibilities when you already
know about one or two agencies that seem
quite appropriate. But sometimes it’s worth
the trouble. Certain agencies may be very well
known, but that doesn’t mean they are effective. Quite possibly they are overloaded
because so many people contact them.
Sometimes there is a conscientious agency that
only receives a few complaints each year. This
might turn out to be your best bet.
The next step is to investigate promising
options. You can probably eliminate some
options quickly because they don’t apply to
your situation. If you are confronted by
financial misdealings by top management, then
internal organisational procedures won’t be of
much use, nor will antidiscrimination boards
The whistleblower’s handbook
— unless of course the misdealings have some
ethnic or other element covered by antidiscrimination legislation. However, it’s best not
to eliminate options too quickly. Sometimes
there are original ways to proceed.
After eliminating some options, you need to
begin the real task of investigation. What do
you need to find out? Here are some key
• What sort of documentation is required? Is
it enough to mention a few incidents and let
the agency investigate from there? Do you
need to supply copies of documents, signed
statements, names and dates, etc.?
• How much documentation is needed? Is a
one-page letter enough, or will eventually
hundreds of pages of submissions be required?
• How much work will be involved? Will
the work required take hours, days, weeks,
months or years?
• How long will it take? Will the process be
over quickly (a few weeks), or will it drag on
for months or years?
• What are the chances of success? Of
people with cases like yours, what proportion
win or get satisfaction? One out of two? One
out of ten?
One approach is to look at the formal
requirements. Agencies often produce guidelines telling how to make a submission. In
some cases this is useful, but it seldom gives
much insight into what’s involved.
By far the best way to get answers is to
talk to people who have been through the same
processes. They can tell you all about it and
give you a realistic picture.
The hard part is tracking down these
people. Commonly, the names of prior
complainants are confidential. If there is an
action group, support group or whistleblowers
group in your area, that is your best bet. For
example, if your complaint is about the
medical system, try to find a medical consumers group. If your complaint is about an
environmental issue, contact an environmental
organisation. If you are confronted by financial
corruption, there may be a shareholders
One warning: make sure that the group is a
genuine one. There are some groups with the
right-sounding name that are actually industry
front groups or which defend professionals
from clients. For example, many polluting
industries fund bogus “citizen” groups to
campaign on their behalf. How can you tell the
difference? Personal contacts are a good way.
Also, you can ask the groups for references to
If there is no obvious group or individual to
give you first-hand advice, then your task is
more difficult. Sometimes there are official
statistics about the outcomes of cases.
However, these can be misleading. A large
proportion of cases, whether in internal
organisation procedures or in the courts, are
settled before they go through all the formal
stages. You might be able to find records of
court decisions, but that won’t give you
information about cases that were settled out
of court.
Try to find a knowledgeable insider who
will give you the low-down on what actually
happens. In most organisations there is at least
one individual who knows a lot about the
organisation’s problems and how they have
been dealt with. If you can track this person
down and tap into their reservoir of knowledge, the insights you gain will be invaluable,
since often they are about people who tried to
change the system and what happened to
There are such people everywhere, but in
most cases you have to be an insider yourself
to gain access to them. For example, in any
agency there will be people who can give an
honest appraisal of what has worked and what
hasn’t. This information will greatly help you
in deciding how best to proceed and how to
avoid pitfalls into which those before you have
stumbled. The best way to track these people
down is through friendship networks.
Doing a thorough investigation of options
can be very time-consuming and frustrating. If
you can recruit some friends or supporters —
Official channels
especially those with good connections — it
can be much easier. The bigger the issue, the
more careful your investigation should be.
Think of it this way:
• If you find out that certain channels are
not worth trying, that may save you thousands of dollars and months of work.
• If you learn a few tips about how to make
your case more effective, that may make the
difference between success and failure.
Chapter 5 emphasised the importance of
collecting plenty of documentation: more
documentation than most people ever imagined
was necessary. The same applies to investigating options: you should investigate more
than you ever imagined was necessary.
If you are involved in sports, you know
that preparation is the key to success. This
includes training, mental and physical. It
includes studying the rules. It includes finding
out about opponents.
Making a formal submission is like playing
a game. You need to have prepared exceptionally well, to know your opponent and to know
the best way to play. The other side probably
has lots more money and resources to use
against you. To have a chance of winning, you
need every advantage possible. Being clever
Another source of information is books,
journals and the internet. Contact your librarian or a friendly researcher to help you find
out about options. Perhaps someone has
written an article or a thesis about the agency
or about the fate of certain types of complaints. Newspaper articles can be helpful too.
You can use computer databases to track down
articles, court reports and much else. If you
can find a useful study or commentary about
the path you’re planning, that’s useful in
itself. If you have more questions, perhaps
you can contact the author.
There are some other sources of information
about which you need to be wary:
• Senior people in the organisation. You are
unlikely to obtain a realistic picture from them.
• Agency workers. They may tell you the
official line, which is invariably optimistic and
sometimes damaging. Sometimes you may get
quite helpful advice. The challenge is to know
which is which.
• Lawyers. They are unlikely to give you an
honest account of the downside of legal action,
including great expense and long time delays. A
few are corrupt.
Who should you trust? You should be wary
of those who have some stake in a particular
process or outcome, such as officials and
lawyers. You can have more trust in those who
have nothing to gain by your choice, such as
librarians or researchers. You can have most
trust in those who have confronted the same
sort of problems that you have and who have
made sacrifices in their pursuit of justice.
Remember that there can always be exceptions. Some lawyers and agency officials are
pushing for change and can be your best allies.
Some researchers are far from independent,
being financially or ideologically in the back
pocket of your opponents.
Finally, if your information is limited, here
are some rules of thumb, based on the experience of whistleblowers.
• Estimate how much money and effort the
process should take if it was handled sensibly
by all parties. Then multiply by 10 or 100 to
get an estimate of the actual amounts. If you
estimate a week’s work (40 hours), then the
actual figure could easily be several months or
even years.
• Estimate how long the process should take
if it was run efficiently. Then multiply by 10
to get an estimate how long it will take. If it
should be over in six months, then the actual
time could be five years.
• Estimate the chance of success if everything was fair. Then divide by 10 to get an
estimate of your actual chance of success. If
you think your chance should be 50% (1 out
of 2), then your actual chance is probably
closer to 5% (1 out of 20).
This may seem terribly pessimistic.
Although the numerical procedures are arbi-
The whistleblower’s handbook
trary, the general approach is right. Most
people challenging the system greatly underestimate how much money, effort and time will
be required and greatly overestimate their
chances of success. These rules of thumb are
designed to bring some realism into the
Now it’s time to weigh up the benefits and
costs of the most promising options. This is a
process that involves what you’ve found out
about the options, plus your own values and
One useful technique is to write down two
lists: benefits and costs. This helps to clarify
what’s involved. The decision may not be any
easier, but you are less likely to miss some
important point. Here are two general lists that
cover many typical benefits and costs.
Expose problem
Prevent continuation of problem
Set an example/precedent
Improved work situation
Diversion from problem
Worse work situation
Diversion from other options
The first three benefits are mostly for the
organisation or society rather than you
personally. By taking an issue to an official
channel, you may help expose the problem.
This is especially the case if you link your
appeal with a publicity campaign, as described
in the next chapter. Also, your action may
help prevent the problem continuing, by
alerting authorities or by putting the organisation on notice. Your case may even set an
example that others can follow or set a precedent for employees or citizens to take similar
Then there are benefits to you personally.
Compensation might be a monetary pay-out or
retirement package. An improved work situation might be a return to the status quo before
you spoke out, a reduction in attacks, or a
change in location or boss. If you lost your
job, a return to work can be a major benefit.
Finally, there are benefits that are primarily
psychological. Pursuing a case can give selfrespect, regardless of what happens along the
way, because it means that you have taken a
stand against injustice and persevered against
great odds. If the case is successful, this can
vindicate your stand. Even if you lose, you
may feel better than doing nothing and later
feeling guilty when the problem continues and
claims further victims.
Lesley Pinson comments
I felt overwhelmingly that if I didn’t do as
much as I could and there was a serious accident, I would forever feel dreadful that I hadn’t
done anything. Also, I feared that if I didn’t
report corruption and it was subsequently
exposed, then I would look foolish or be found
professionally negligent if I was ever asked
“But you knew about this, why didn’t you
report it?”
What about motivations that we usually
don’t admit — such as revenge? Well, that’s
up to you. This book is about being an effective resister, not getting even.
Now for the costs of using official channels.
Although in the best scenario, dealing with
your case through official channels may bring
attention to the problem, in the worst scenario
it may do the opposite: divert attention from
the problem by dealing with all sorts of minor
irrelevant issues.
Major costs are time and expense, as
discussed earlier. Months of work and large
costs are common. Perhaps you will put your
life savings at risk. Another major cost is
trauma. This includes reopening discussion of
topics that upset you before as well as the
mounting of new attacks. If you still have your
Official channels
job, the case may make your situation worse
by opening you to harassment and the like.
It’s important to remember that you may
end up with official decisions made against
you. This could serve to discredit you and the
causes you support. Finally, pursuing official
channels may divert you from other options.
All the time and money you spend on the case
might have been devoted to some other course
of action. This is the “opportunity cost” of
this path.
So — you’ve written down the benefits and
costs. How do you make a decision? This isn’t
easy. One of the most difficult parts is that
you don’t know what will happen. This isn’t
like buying a house where you know, pretty
much, what you will get. It’s more like taking a
huge gamble.
To start, it can help to separate out the
certain consequences from the ones that
depend on the outcome. You can list things
that you think are sure to happen as definite,
those that are more likely than not as probable
and those that are less likely than this as
possible. The lists might look like this.
Definite benefit
Probable benefit
Expose problem
Possible benefits
Prevent continuation of problem
Set an example/precedent
Improved work situation
Definite costs
Diversion from other options
Probable costs
Diversion from problem
Possible costs
Worse work situation
Whereas the original list just gave all outcomes
without any assessment, this listing is a move
towards what is likely. To refine this a bit, it
can be useful to eliminate items that aren’t so
important to you, leaving just the ones that are
crucial. For example, let’s say that the financial
side is vital, because you have a family to
support. You have plenty of time — since you
lost your job! On the psychological side, selfrespect is very important, but you are worried
about reopening the wounds. The list of essentials boils down to this.
Definite benefit
Possible benefit
Definite cost
Probable cost
Even with this shorter list, the comparisons
can be difficult. Let’s say you expect the
expense to be £20,000, including legal costs
and income forgone, and the likely compensation if you win to be £100,000. Then, this is a
fair wager if your chance of success is one in
five. Are you a gambler? Would you bet
£20,000 on a horse at 5-1 odds?
Comparing the financial benefits and costs
is the easy part! How can you compare
maintaining self-respect with a likelihood of
continued trauma? What if other people —
your family — are affected too? There are no
easy answers.
There’s one sure thing, though. You are
more likely to make a sensible decision by
laying out the options and consequences and
thinking them through than by acting in the
heat of the moment. Emotions are always
involved, to be sure. But when it comes to
making a decision, it helps to have thought
through the options.
There are several important points to keep
in mind when making a decision.
Success is rare. Most people tend to overestimate their chance of success using official
The whistleblower’s handbook
channels. Let’s say that you’ve worked out
that the chance of winning through this
particular appeal procedure is less than one
out of ten, because you’ve heard of only one
definite victory and know at least ten who lost
or gave up along the way. Nevertheless, many
people tend to discount the figures because
they know, deep in their hearts, that their own
case is really good. How could it lose, with
rock-solid documentation? This is the time to
remember that success through official
channels is not about being right but about
winning against the other side’s tactics.
Another factor is that most people are not
good at integrating probabilities in decision
making. The chance of winning may be one out
of ten, but in comparing benefits and costs it is
tempting to think of them on equal terms.
The key is to compare options. You’ve
summed up the benefits and costs of this
option. Now you need to do the same with
other options. This is a way of finding the
option that has the best balance of benefits and
costs. You might decide that you would go
ahead on option A, because by your assessment the benefits outweigh the costs. But it’s
worth checking options B and C too, because
they might be even better. Furthermore, you
may find that you can proceed with options A
and B at the same time, improving your odds.
Check with others. Be sure to consult with
others, especially those who are closest to you
and those who know most about the options.
They may be able to warn you if you are
making unrealistic assumptions or if you’ve
forgotten some important factors. Ultimately,
though, the decision is yours.
Extra reminder on overestimating success
There are several common psychological
factors that make people overestimate their
chance of success — and to gamble when the
odds are very bad.
First, most people are overconfident about
their own abilities. For example:
• 90% of workers said that they are more
productive than the median worker;
• 70% of final-year high school students
said that they had more leadership ability than
• 60% of these students said they were in
the top 10% in their ability to get along with
• 94% of academics said they were better at
their jobs than an average colleague.1
Second, success is highly salient compared
to failure. Those who lose or give up along the
way are usually less prominent. We hear a lot
about lottery winners but seldom about the
many losers. We hear a lot about a few famous
basketball or soccer players but never about
the many kids who waste years unsuccessfully
trying to make the big time. Similarly, if
someone wins a major court case against a
corrupt boss, it is likely to be reported in the
media and become an example. Losers seldom
make the news.
Third, people tend to throw good money
after bad. Psychologically, there’s a tendency
to try to recoup money lost in an investment
by putting in more money. Similarly, someone
who has spent weeks of work and waited a
year to have a complaint heard is strongly
tempted to keep trying even though the return
may not be worth the trouble.
Fourth, many people believe that, after a
string of heads when flipping a coin, tails is
more likely. Actually, the odds are the same.
After trying a series of appeal channels and
being repeatedly unsuccessful, some may think
they’ve had a string of bad luck and that the
next attempt is bound to be more successful.
Wrong. If anything, it’s less likely to succeed
since the more promising avenues were tried at
the beginning.
So — your case is rock-solid and you know
that you are in the right. Other people may
lose cases but yours is different. Think again!
Other people also had rock-solid cases and
were in the right — but they lost. The other
1. Robert H. Frank and Philip J. Cook, The WinnerTake-All Society: Why the Few at the Top Get So Much
More Than the Rest of Us (New York: Penguin, 1996),
p. 104.
Official channels
side used legal loopholes, nasty tricks, obfuscation and delays, keeping the cases going for
years. Victory can be both rare and expensive
even when official channels are fair. When
officials are corrupt, your task is even more
Some degree of overconfidence can be
useful, otherwise we would never try or risk
anything. But it’s vital to be as realistic as
possible when comparing options. All options
need to be examined in terms of benefits and
costs, not just the size of the glittering prize at
the end. All options are risky. All the more
reason to pick the one that has the best
Staying the distance
You’ve made your decision: you’re going
ahead with it. You’ve begun the process: a
grievance mechanism, a complaint to an
agency, a court case. Soon you’ll know more
about procedures than you ever thought
necessary. If you’re going to use this channel,
it makes sense to use it well.
L e a r n everything you can about the
process. It makes sense to follow the required
specifications as closely as possible, unless
you have some principled objection. If you
have to make a submission, write it well and
follow the standard format.
Contact, if you can, people who have been
through the process already, especially those
who found it satisfactory. Listen to their
advice carefully. Look at their documents. Is
your own case missing something? Ask them
what they found to be the weakest point in
their case, and then work on making your own
case as strong as possible in that area.
Make sure you know how many procedures and appearances you could have to go
through, assuming the other side appeals to
higher jurisdictions. Otherwise, it may be
halfway through your first case when you find
out what you’re in for.
Practise to improve your performance. If
you have to make a written submission, write
draft after draft, getting comments on how to
improve it from anyone with knowledge and
If you have to speak or answer questions,
do some practice sessions. Prepare your talk
carefully and then practise it by yourself in
front of a mirror. You can refer to brief notes
or cue cards, but never read a talk. Practise it
over and over until your nerves are reduced to
a tolerable level. Better yet, get a tape recorder
and listen to your talk. Then revise the talk,
and your style, step by step. Focus on
improving just one aspect at a time.
Next, get a friend to be an audience, and give
your talk. If you’re still very nervous, try it
again — and again. Get feedback from your
friend on how to improve, both content and
delivery. No one becomes a brilliant speaker
overnight, but it is possible to improve considerably by preparation and practice. You may
never eliminate nervousness, but it is possible
to keep it under control.
If you have to answer questions, practice is
again crucial. Write down the questions that
you think are the most difficult. Work out
your best possible answers and then practise
them. Give the questions to a friend and have
the friend ask you the questions and listen to
your answers. Then get your friend to make
up new questions and ask you to answer
without preparation. Ask people who’ve been
through the process before what sort of
questions come up. Get advice about what
sorts of answers are most effective. Answering
questions is a skill that can be improved by
preparation and practice.
The same applies to your emotions. If you
sometimes lose your temper or get visibly
upset, your opponents may be tempted to use
this as a vulnerability, either planned in
advance or instinctively on the spur of the
moment. Think of the sorts of comments or
situations that trigger an emotional response
that may weaken your case. Plan a method of
response that keeps you in control, for
example a behaviour (“pause and take three
deep breaths before responding”) or a set of
ideas or images (“a calm, crisp reply”).
The whistleblower’s handbook
Practise your plan by yourself and then with a
Choose your advocates carefully. If you are
represented by an advocate, for example by a
lawyer in a court case, choose carefully —
assuming you have a choice. Consult with
others to find out their experiences. If someone
who has been through the same process
recommends an advocate, that is a good
endorsement. Sometimes you can find out
about the advocate by looking up court records
or other files. Don’t hesitate to do so. If
you’re spending lots of money and time on the
case, it makes sense to investigate thoroughly
to ensure that you have the best possible
Try to find someone who is oriented to
results rather than process. The resultsoriented advocate is willing to push things
forward in order to get what you want most
out of the process, whether it’s an apology, a
pay-out or a precedent-setting judgement. The
process-oriented advocate, on the other hand,
tends to respond to the requirements of the
system, going through a standard procedure,
allowing the maximum time or waiting for the
other side to take an initiative. This often
increases your costs while delaying things.
Your advocate should be willing to follow
your instructions. Sure, the advocate may
know a lot more about the system than you
do, and therefore you should consider the
advocate’s advice carefully. But you know
more about your case than anyone. If you’ve
also learned a lot about the process, you may
wish to overrule your advocate’s recommendation. Go ahead. It’s your choice.
Lesley Pinson comments
You should also listen to and act on your
instincts. Psychologically, when you act
against your better judgement and instincts
because of the advice of others, then if this
advice proves to be wrong it leads to a lot of
bitterness and anger against your advocate
which is a diversion from the main game.
(Quite a few whistleblowers end up taking
action against their own lawyers.) You end up
bitterly regretting that you didn’t do what you
believed was right in the first place.
Much better is to listen to your instincts
and do what you believe is right. If that proves
to be wrong, it is a hell of a lot easier to move
on and live with your own mistakes.
Whistleblowers tend to put far too much
faith in their legal advocates. This is doomed.
It is important to keep your advocates on their
toes. It is dangerous to sit back and rest
comfortably with the expectation that
someone else is now going to solve things for
you. This is when things can go very badly
wrong. You must always retain control over
your case and be responsible for it.
Jean Lennane comments
It’s possible to use the legal system effectively, but quite a lot of insight and skill is
required. For example, it’s worthwhile aiming
to achieve a series of small legal wins in order
to end up where you want to go.
Unfortunately, 95% of lawyers are a waste
of time or worse for whistleblowers. The cases
simply aren’t rewarding enough for lawyers to
do a good job.
Whistleblowers sometimes qualify as
lawyers in order to handle their own cases. If
your case is likely to last five years or more —
and many do — then qualifying is worth it.
More specialist lawyers are needed to help
Change your advocate if necessary. If
you’re unhappy with the support or advice
you’ve been receiving, go ahead and change. It
could be that your advocate is overloaded, has
personal problems, isn’t interested, isn’t
competent or is corrupt. An incompetent
advocate may lose the case by making mistakes in procedure, using the wrong arguments
or just presenting the arguments poorly. A
corrupt advocate could be paid off by the
Official channels
other side, hope for some benefit by not
rocking the boat, or have friends in high places.
It’s better to change than to persist with
someone you don’t trust or who isn’t giving
satisfactory service. However, just because
you lost the case doesn’t mean your advocate
was incompetent or corrupt. The other side
might have had more talented advocates hired
at huge expense.
Obtain independent advice. Talk to people
who have nothing to gain or lose from the
outcome of your case. See what they think.
What is the best next step? Are you being too
demanding of your advocate? Is it appropriate
to compromise?
Independent advice is vital because you can
trust it more. A paid advocate may well have
developed a standard procedure that tends to
increase the length of the case — and the
advocate’s pay. A union official is likely to
put union interests — or personal career
interests — higher than your case. This is
natural enough and need not involve conscious
scheming or corruption.
Reassess your strategy regularly. As the
case progresses, the situation changes. Your
finances or your personal relationships may be
different. Your goals may change. There may
be facts revealed that change your perspective
about the situation. So go back to the drawing
board and look at your strategy (see chapter
4). Is it time to call it quits? Is it time for a
dramatic new initiative? Is the present course
about right?
Beware the silencing clause
Things are looking good. Your case looks like
winning, or perhaps you’ve just won. The
other side comes to you offering a settlement
— usually a large amount of money. It is
bound to be tempting. The money can help
pay off mounting bills. Also, it means no more
court appearances. After all, the other side
could appeal your victory, even if they have
little prospect of success, in an attempt to
wear you down through years of additional
There are two catches. First, you don’t
obtain a formal victory. Second, and more
deadly, is the silencing clause. You are
expected, as part of the settlement, to sign a
statement saying that you won’t reveal
anything about the case or even the amount of
the settlement itself.
There are lots of variations on the silencing
clause. The basic aim is to shut you up and
prevent your case becoming a precedent for
others. The other side avoids admitting
The settlement is attractive, but the silencing clause is not. But often the other side will
insist: no clause, no settlement.
You have to make your own decision, and
your personal circumstances may virtually
dictate acquiescence. There are a few implications.
• At the beginning of litigation, be aware of
the possibility of silencing agreements .
• Be prepared for options just prior to going
to court.
• Be flexible, because you might change
your mind if the silencing clause suppresses
basic issues at stake. After all, speaking out in
the public interest is a matter of making information generally available, not covering it up.
• If you are able, resist as much of any
silencing clause as possible. Speaking out
about the issues is more important than
naming the payment you received.
• Join campaigns to ban silencing clauses.
Formal mediation, a semi-official channel
If you are having a conflict with someone that
you can’t easily sort out just between the two
of you, then formal mediation may be helpful.
(The term “mediation” may be used to describe different processes. This description is
one example.) A neutral mediator is chosen,
agreeable to both parties. The mediator meets
with the two people in conflict and allows
them to present and discuss their perspectives.
Various outcomes are possible. Ideally, differences are resolved. More commonly, the
parties recognise that their differences persist
The whistleblower’s handbook
but agree to behave civilly in future. When the
process is unsuccessful, one or both parties
may decide to pursue their grievance in some
other way.
The great advantage of mediation is that it
allows people in dispute to lay their perspectives on the table in front of a neutral party.
Often, this process cools tempers and
improves relationships. It can open up
communication channels and prevent a
situation from escalating to far more damaging
and irretrievable steps.
The role of the mediator is crucial. Mediators have considerable latitude. They might
decide to meet each person separately before
holding a joint meeting, to have a series of
meetings or to run “shuttle diplomacy.” They
decide how to conduct meetings and need to
monitor the conversation sensitively. If the
mediator is not seen as neutral, this undermines the process. The mediator should not be
in a position of power over any participant.
Mediation, as described here, requires a fair
bit of trust. Parties participate voluntarily on
their own, without advocates. Usually no
formal notes are taken and there is no formal
report to any organisation such as an
employer. Agreements are not formally
binding. Mediation does not seek “the truth”
as in a formal investigation or to reach a definitive ruling as in an arbitration or court
proceeding, but rather to help people to get
along better.
Mediation is frequently carried out in an
informal fashion in day-to-day interactions,
such as when someone tries to help friends or
family members to get along better, or when a
co-worker swiftly intervenes to hose down a
heated exchange. Some people in groups
habitually take on the role of informal mediator, acting sensitively and unobtrusively to
prevent things getting out of hand. Formal
mediation is an attempt to build on the best
aspects of this important everyday process.
For all its advantages, mediation is not
always a good idea. If you are being targeted,
mediation can serve as a means of attack. The
biggest risk is that the mediator is not neutral,
in which case meetings may be used to blame
or humiliate you. Another danger is that
information provided in a meeting may not be
kept confidential. In the worst scenario, everything you say is fed by the mediator back to
your boss or antagonist. Finally, after making a
verbal agreement during mediation, there is no
guarantee that the other party will hold to it.
Workplace mediation works best between
co-workers who are in roughly comparable
sorts of positions and who have a long-term
interest in getting along. It is not so well suited
for harmonising relations between boss and
If you have reason to believe that a particular mediator is biased or untrustworthy,
request a different mediator. If you don’t fully
trust the other party, don’t say anything that
could open you to attack. If appropriate, ask
for an agreement — such as not to discuss a
particular incident any more — to be put in
writing and signed by both of you. Finally, if
you can’t see any benefits from mediation,
don’t participate.
Sometimes, during a legal battle, the court
will offer mediation as a possible means of
resolution. Make sure that you have as many
people on your side as there are on the other
side. It’s also advisable to specify how long
the process will last. If you’re stuck in a room
for many hours under enormous pressure to
reach an agreement, the risk of making unwise
concessions increases as time goes on and your
energy flags.
When tempers flare, threats are made and a
relationship becomes seriously soured, mediation can really help. But it’s not a cure-all, and
it can be abused. If you’re not sure whether
mediation is a good idea, discuss the possibility with friends and see whether you can talk
to others who have utilised the same mediator.
If your problem is mainly a personal
conflict, mediation can be quite helpful. But if
the problem involves much more than interpersonal relations, such as serious corruption,
mediation will be inadequate or even harmful.
Building support
Building support means getting others on your side. There are several important
techniques, including:
• preparing a written account
• person-to-person approaches
• support groups
• action groups
• letters
• leaflets
• using media.
The basic idea in building support is to win
people to your point of view — namely that
there is a problem and something needs to be
done about it.
Of course, when you use official channels
you are trying to win certain people to your
point of view, namely those people in authority, whether it is managers, judges or politicians. The idea in building support, in contrast,
is to take your message to lots of other people,
such as co-workers, clients, neighbours and the
general public.
To compare different approaches, it’s
useful to use diagrams. Let’s start with the
people and groups who have the most sway in
society: top politicians, heads of big corporations, influential government officials, and
powerful figures in media, professions, trade
unions, etc. I will call them powerholders.
• “Decision makers.” However, everyone
makes decisions. Elites make decisions that
have more impact.
• “Powerholders.” Some critics say that
people don’t hold power; instead, they exercise power by getting others, by fear, habit or
conviction, to do what they want.
• “The establishment.” This suggests that
powerholders are a solid, cohesive group,
which may not be the case.
Next, note that there are different groups of
powerholders. Sometimes they support each
other and sometimes they clash.
Linked to one of the groups of powerholders is a policy or practice that is the problem
you are concerned about. It might be due to:
• a decision the powerholders made and
support, but you think has bad consequences
for others;
• a decision that is bad for everyone,
powerholders included;
• no decision where one is needed;
• ignorance of the problem;
• corrupt practice;
There’s no perfect term to label these people.
You might prefer a different term.
• “Elites.” This may suggest, incorrectly,
that these people are more talented than
others, or better in some other way. Actually,
the key distinction is that they exercise more
power. So they might be called “power elites.”
The whistleblower’s handbook
• incompetent or bullying management;
• other factors.
Whatever the case, it is this policy or
practice that you think needs attention,
whether investigation, reform, abolition or
How can you bring about change? One
approach can be called “appeal to elites.”
Basically, this means that you ask powerholders to take action.
The classic example is writing a letter to the
president or prime minister, or to heads of
companies, government departments or television stations. The same approach is involved,
in a lesser scale, in contacting the boss, the
manager of a local shop or head of a sporting
This approach has a chance when you
know the powerholder personally or when the
problem is small or nonthreatening. If you are
on good terms with the boss, a politician or the
head of the local police station, you might may
be able to make a suggestion and have it taken
Lesley Pinson comments
In trying to gain the support of others and to
get them to act, it is important to consider
what might motivate them to act. What could
they gain by acting? This might change the
way you approach them. Others will have
different interests than yours. For example, a
politician might be more motivated to push for
an investigation into your allegations if this
would prove damaging to other political
parties. You’ll get further by providing a
motivation for others to act than by simply
demanding an investigation and expecting
people to act accordingly.
When the stakes are higher and when you
have no personal connections, your chance of
success is tiny — even if what you suggest is
eminently sensible. The trouble is that the
powerholders are most strongly affected by
each other and by the need to maintain their
Furthermore, from their point of view they
have only a limited scope for action because of
all the obstacles they face. A politician can
receive more correspondence and reports in a
day than they can read in a week with nothing
else to do, and not have a hope of achieving
more than a few of the many things they’d like
to do. They might actually feel powerless
themselves. They are high-level cogs in a
system of power.
So your appeal is not heard. Another
option is official channels. This includes
grievance procedures, ombudsmen and courts,
as described in chapter 6.
When you think about it, it turns out that all
these channels were set up by the powerholders. They are meant to be independent, of
course, but in practice they have strong links
with the powerholders. Your approach now is
to be heard successfully through the official
Building support
channels which, in turn, will influence the
powerholders. Some official channels have
quite a lot of independence, notably the courts.
Others, like grievance procedures, may be
independent in name but little else.
If evidence and logic isn’t enough to get
powerholders to act, an alternative is to apply
pressure. You win the support of friends and
co-workers. You get neighbours to sign a
petition. You go on radio. You get an endorsement from local businesses and professionals.
All of these individuals and groups demand
This is essentially what is called pressure
group politics. Instead of using logic and
evidence to persuade powerholders to act,
other methods are used: letters, petitions,
meetings, media coverage, voting, rallies. In
pressure group politics, the aim is to use
numbers and influence to get action from
powerholders. Politicians often respond if
they think popular support is at stake.
Corporate executives often respond if they
think sales are at risk. But there are no guarantees. Remember that powerholders are powerfully influenced by other powerholders. You
might have massive popular support but some
other group may have more money or inside
Another option is direct action. Instead of
getting someone else to act, you do it yourself,
usually after gaining some popular support.
Juanita was concerned about a nearby
vacant block of land. It was overgrown and
sometimes used as a dump. Recently there had
been fights there between groups of youths.
Since it was city-owned land, Juanita wrote to
the mayor suggesting that the block be made
into a park, greatly needed in this part of
town. After six months she received a reply
saying that her suggestion would be examined.
She next tried the land commission, supposedly set up to deal with conflicting claims over
land use. This also led nowhere. So she started
talking to neighbours, organised a public
meeting, wrote letters to the newspaper and
even held a protest at the land commission
offices. As a result of this agitation, Juanita
found many supporters. She heard about
similar problems elsewhere in the city. She
also heard, from disgruntled city officials, that
vacant blocks like this were purposely being
allowed to run down so they could be sold off
to developers at a low price, in exchange for
pay-offs to politicians. Juanita continued to
mobilise support. After lots of preparation,
one day she and a large group of neighbours
cleared rubbish from the site, cleaned it up,
planted flowers and shrubs, installed recreational equipment, and started using the block
as a park. However, early in the morning a
week later, government workers cleared the
site and put up a barricade to keep people out.
The struggle was just beginning.
In this example, Juanita used four approaches: appeal to elites, official channels,
pressure group politics and direct action.
However, there’s no requirement to use them
in this sequence, or to use all of them. Each
case is different.
The whistleblower’s handbook
In each approach, there is a need to win
over some people.
• Appeal to elites. You need to convince the
• Official channels. You need to convince
relevant officials, such as judges.
• Pressure group politics. You need to
convince various people, including individuals
and leaders of organisations in the community,
and win over some of them strongly enough so
they will help. You don’t have to convince
powerholders, but just put enough pressure on
them to act.
• Direct action. You need to convince at
least some people to be powerfully committed, enough to take direct action themselves.
If you have truth on your side but what
you have to say is threatening to powerful
interests, then appealing to elites or using
official channels is very unlikely to work. You
do have a chance of convincing other people
though — those who are not compromised by
the powerful interests. This is the process of
building support. It’s the main subject of this
Building support is obviously important for
pressure group politics and direct action, but it
is also important when appealing to elites and
using official channels. If officials know that
there is a groundswell of public opinion on a
subject, they are much more likely to respond
to letters and formal complaints. Anyone
planning to use official channels should be
aware of the value of building support.
There are various aspects to building
support, including approaching people, writing
letters, and using the media. There’s no fixed
order for using these techniques, nor any
necessity to use any or all of them. So the
order I treat them here is just for convenience.
Preparing a written account
It is extremely useful to have a written account
of your case or the problem that concerns you.
It’s not essential, since you can make do with
telling people about the situation, giving them
relevant official documents or newspaper
articles, and referring them to others. A written
account, though, makes things a lot easier.
• Instead of having to tell each new person
the entire story, you can give them the writeup.
• The write-up can be an organising tool, for
example circulated along with a petition or sent
to potential supporters.
• Journalists will present the facts more
accurately if they can refer to a short treatment.
• The process of writing an account may
help you gain a better overall grasp of the key
features in the case.
What you need is a short treatment. One
page is ideal. Two pages (fitting on one sheet
of paper) is okay. If you have a longer treatment, then it’s helpful to have a short
Jean Lennane comments
It is just plain rude to expect someone to read
through a thick pile of documents — some
files are five centimetres thick! — especially
with no summary. Don’t assume that your
case is so important that others must read it no
matter how you present it. It is simply
courtesy to make it easy for others to understand your case — and this can help win them
over as well.
The first thing to decide is what the writeup is about. Many cases are incredibly
complex, with many dimensions. You need to
decide what you think is the most important
issue and focus on that.
Gale became a friend and supporter to a
young girl, Aleta, who had physical and mental
disabilities. Some of the treatment that Aleta
received from certain family members was
terrible. Furthermore, government disability
service organisations had an appalling record in
addressing Aleta’s needs. Gale, in standing up
for Aleta, was criticised by various people and
soon found out that the government bodies had
a poor record in lots of cases. Gale decided to
Building support
write an account to tell people about the
problems. What should she focus on? Some
possibilities are:
A. The story of Aleta’s life: who she is and
what she has experienced.
B. Aleta’s most imperative needs.
C. What needs to happen to improve
Aleta’s situation.
D. The failure of family and government to
fully support Aleta.
E. Gale’s own problems in trying to
support Aleta.
F. General problems with government
disability services.
The answer depends on Gale’s goals. If her
primary goal is to help Aleta, then the focus
probably should be A, B or C with some
points from D and maybe E. If her primary
goal is to change government disability services, then the focus should be F, possibly
using Aleta’s story as an illustration.
You also need to decide what to include.
Usually there is so much material that it seems
impossible to imagine a short treatment. How
can years of struggle be summarised in a few
paragraphs? There’s no way every detail or
example can be included. So you have to make
some tough decisions. Here are some criteria.
• Every statement should be true. If anyone
might dispute it (including by lying), you
should have documentation to back up it up.
• Items should be understandable to an
ordinary reader — straightforward and not
requiring special knowledge.
• Items should be clearly related to the main
focus of the write-up.
• If possible, the material chosen should be
able to be put together so that it tells a story.
Alternatively, it should use evidence and
logical argument to build towards a conclusion.
Gale decided to write an article about Aleta.
She wrote down a long list of things that could
be included, and then struck out the weaker
— Gale had lots of information about
Aleta’s disabilities and health problems,
including how they were diagnosed and
treated, emergency visits to hospitals and so
forth. For example, Aleta had special problems
with allergies due to her other disabilities. Gale
decided to include only a basic statement about
Aleta’s disabilities. Most of the medical
history wasn’t relevant to the main story.
— Aleta had been assaulted on several
occasions, almost certainly by one particular
family member. But Gale had no hard proof of
assault. So she included the fact that a doctor
had documented severe bruising on Aleta that
was very unlikely to be accidental or selfinflicted.
— Gale had a lot of information about
how obtaining services for Aleta had been
obstructed as a result of a ruling by a court
that had been interpreted by an agency in a
peculiar way, and only changed as a result of
several appeals and an involved process
involving several agencies. Gale decided that
the complications of the legislation and
administration of services would be too hard to
explain in a short account, and so replaced
them by a short statement summarising the net
Having decided the focus of the write-up
and what sort of items are to be included, it’s
time to write. If you are an experienced writer
or have no worries about doing it, go ahead. On
the other hand, if, like many people, you are
not used to writing and are worried it will be
horrible, here are a few suggestions.
• Imagine you are writing a letter about the
case to a relative or friend — someone you feel
safe saying anything to.
• Go ahead and write down everything.
Don’t worry about length or quality. Just keep
writing. You can fix up problems later.
• If you have difficulty writing the first
sentence, just start writing anything. “I’m
having trouble getting started. That’s because I
don’t know what to say first, and I’m worried
about what it will look like. Should I start with
Getting a first draft is just the beginning of
the process. Here’s a typical sequence.
The whistleblower’s handbook
1. Write a first draft.
2. Revise.
3. Revise.
4. Revise.
5. Give the draft to a couple of friends and
supporters to get comments.
6. Revise in the light of comments.
7. Revise.
8. Give the revised draft to several other
people for comments.
9. Revise.
10. Give the polished draft to specialists in
the field to check facts.
11. Have someone check for defamation.
12. Revise.
13. Proofread (check spelling, grammar,
14. Print.
15. Proofread once more before distribution.
You may not need to go through such a
lengthy process. Some experienced people can
throw together an eloquent article in an hour or
two. Journalists do it all the time. But if this is
the first time you have written about this
issue, then taking lots of care is wise and
It all may seem a lot of trouble just for a
little article. Compared to the money and
effort you’d put in going through an official
channel, though, it’s not much. A wellconstructed article can be an incredibly potent
Let’s go back to the sequence. After step 1,
the first draft, there are three types of steps:
revision, getting comments, and proofreading.
Revision means going through what you’ve
written and improving it: checking facts and
fixing the way you’ve expressed them; rewriting sentences to make them clearer; adding or
deleting material. Also check spelling and
grammar. If you have the text on computer,
you can run it through a spell-checker and
Be sure to include a title. At the beginning
of the write-up, it’s often effective to have a
one or two-sentence summary. At the end
there should be a concluding paragraph that
includes the main points. You may also want
to include some extras: references, further
reading, photos or cartoons, or documents in
support of your claims.
When you’ve done as much revising as you
can, so you’re not sure how to improve it
further, it’s time to get some comments.
Getting other people to give you feedback is
vital for several reasons. You may be so close
to the issue that you haven’t explained basic
things. This is quite common. Other people are
fresher to the issue. Most of all, they are your
potential audience, and they may be able to tell
you how to communicate to them more effectively. If they are specialists in some area,
they may be able to help with technical points.
Not everyone is good at giving comments.
Ideally, you need someone who is sympathetic
but good at giving you specific suggestions for
improvement — such as which paragraphs to
omit, what points to emphasise more, whether
to reorganise the material, change the tone, etc.
Your friends may be afraid to hurt your
feelings and just say that it’s good. If so, ask
which parts they liked the most, and then ask
which parts could be improved — and how.
Other people are critical but not helpful. If
they say it’s too negative or too complicated,
ask which parts are causing the problem and
how they might be changed.
Comments are just that: comments. You
don’t have to agree with them. You might
think that some comments are based on ignorance or prejudice. Remember, though, that
even ill-informed comments give you useful
feedback. They show that you are not
communicating as well as you could to that
person. Even if what you’ve written is
accurate, you might decide to rewrite it so that
it communicates better.
As you get towards the final version, it’s
time to pay more attention to proofreading.
This may seem a trivial matter. But even one
misspelled word sends a signal to some readers
that this is a text that is not completely
accurate. Check every detail yourself and get
Building support
one or two others to do it too. With word
processors, it’s now possible to produce
professional-looking printing. So make it look
nice. Get someone experienced to help if
necessary. And because every time you do
anything with a text, it’s possible to introduce
errors, it’s worth proofreading the final version
before making copies to distribute.
What about getting someone else to write
up your story? If they are keen, good at
writing and sympathetic, it’s an excellent
option. You will have a little less control over
the final product. On the other hand, someone
who is not as close to the events may be able
to prepare a more balanced and effective
Writing is one method of communication. It
is also possible to produce audio or video
records of your story. These could be for radio
or television but also could be to circulate
tapes to people. Producing effective recordings
is a skill like any other, but unless you have
experience in this already it’s probably easier
to produce a written account. Written text is
far more efficient for conveying factual information: people can scan a page of writing to
get a quick impression more easily than they
can listen to a tape. On the other hand,
recordings — especially video — can have a
much more powerful emotional impact. If you
get involved in producing tapes, the same
procedure as writing applies. The script needs
to be written, revised, commented on and
checked. It needs to be in a style appropriate
for the medium — a good radio script is quite
different from a text for reading. Then there are
the stages of producing the recording, followed
by editing, again a process requiring continued
revision and polishing. If you follow this path,
be sure that you have full support from
someone with plenty of skill and experience.
Person-to-person approaches
One of the foundation stones of building
support is contacting people on a one-to-one
basis. This is nearly always involved at some
level or other. The question is who is contacted and by whom.
It’s easy to think that talking to someone
about the issues is a straightforward matter
that doesn’t require any preparation. Planning
your approach beforehand sounds like
manipulation, right? Wrong! Manipulation
means trying to get people to do something
against their better judgement. You don’t need
that with truth on your side. You just need to
be an effective advocate for your cause.
Planning helps.
If you have come under attack, you are
likely to be stressed and possibly traumatised.
That means that it’s very hard to appear
“normal” and to be an effective communicator.
You may become nervous or depressed talking
about the issue. The same applies if you are
passionate about an issue and likely to become
excited or angry. In this case, it may help to
talk things over — your own emotional state
as well as the issues — with a close friend,
relative or trusted counsellor before you
venture to approach others.
When it comes to talking to people about
the issues, it can be useful to classify people
into different groups. One useful breakdown is
likely sympathisers, likely neutrals and likely
• Likely sympathisers. These are people
who probably agree with your views on the
matter, at least in crucial areas. This may
include friends, some co-workers and some
outsiders. For example, if you are exposing
illegal pay-offs in an organisation, likely
sympathisers might include friends (except
those with ties to the guilty parties), coworkers who are not implicated, and those
losing money from the pay-offs.
• Likely neutrals. These are people who
wouldn’t automatically take a stand one way
or another, often because they don’t know
anything about it or don’t know the people
involved. In the case of the illegal pay-offs,
this might include workers in a different
division and most people outside the organisation.
The whistleblower’s handbook
• Likely opponents. These are people who
probably will oppose you. This may include
those who, for whatever reason, dislike you,
plus those who are threatened by your action
on this issue. Those involved in the pay-off
operation plus those who have covered it up,
plus anyone you’ve alienated in the past, are
likely opponents.
Before you approach anybody, it’s worth
deciding what you want to achieve and how
you’re going to go about it. It can be disastrous
to arrange a meeting with someone and then
dump on them at great length with a confusing
story punctuated with anger, outrage and selfpity. Save the raves for those who are willing
to support you emotionally.
With likely sympathisers, it can be appropriate to give a moderately lengthy account.
But check first. If they are busy, be brief. But
as well as telling the story, explain why you
are telling it. Perhaps you are after their advice.
Perhaps you’d like some support, such as
signing a petition, writing a letter, commenting
on a draft article, attending a meeting, speaking
to others or to the media.
If you are after advice, say so at the beginning. If you are seeking support, it’s often
better to save requests until later, judging how
responsive the person is as you go along. If
they are very sympathetic, you can ask
outright for support: “Would you be willing to
write a letter?” If you’re not sure, one technique is to describe what you’re trying to
achieve and how people can help. For example,
“There’s going to be a meeting next week to
discuss taking action on the pay-off issue. If
you know anyone who’d like to attend, here’s
the phone number of the organiser.”
One of the most useful things you can get
from sympathisers is advice. Those who have
been through a similar situation or campaign
before can be especially useful. Any time
you’re telling your story to someone, it is
valuable to observe how they respond.
Sympathisers, though, are more likely to give
you hints on how to improve, especially if
you ask. “Do you think we should focus on
the Stringer pay-off or on the whole pay-off
culture?” “Will a petition to the board be any
In approaching neutrals, a suitable goal is to
make them aware of the issues and more
sympathetic to your point of view. Perhaps a
few may be willing to take action on your
behalf, but that shouldn’t be the main goal.
Rather, it is to change the general climate of
opinion. The vast bulk of neutrals are people
out in the community who know little or
nothing about the issues. If you can convince
them that illegal pay-offs are occurring, most
will become more sympathetic to those who
are doing something about it.
The general climate of opinion, in the long
run, can be quite potent. It means that
opponents have fewer sympathisers. It means
that when the issue comes before a manager, a
rival firm’s owner, a judge or a politician, that
person may have been influenced, either
directly or by comments from a family
member, a co-worker, a friend or client. When
a person in a crucial position hears comments
— “Did you know about that pay-off operation? It’s a real scandal.” — from a daughter or
dentist, it may not make a difference. But
sometimes it does.
Approaching opponents is also worthwhile.
A reasonable goal is to make them less hostile,
perhaps to become a neutral. It can be quite a
challenge to approach those you think are
responsible for problems and to present your
viewpoint in a reasonable manner. Yet there is
much to be gained if you can handle the
situation. You don’t need to be hostile or to
expect a conversion. You can simply say that
you’d like to present your point of view and
that even if they don’t agree with it perhaps
they can understand where you’re coming
from. This can be helpful since it is harder to
demonise someone who is making a sincere
effort to maintain dialogue. Of course, an
extremely hostile opponent may interpret
anything you say in the wrong manner and use
any weakness in your case as a point of attack.
Building support
If you think it’s too risky, then don’t make the
approach, or get a sympathiser to do it.
If your case is long and complex — like
most cases! — then a written summary is a
valuable tool even with sympathisers. After
reading the account, they can ask questions
and you can amplify points that are especially
relevant to them. For neutrals, a written
account is even more valuable: it puts them in
the picture quickly and efficiently. With
opponents, a written account gives them your
point of view in a precise way that might be
hard to achieve verbally, especially if the
meeting makes you very tense.
Creating a support group
A support group is a group of people who
give emotional support to each other.
Members of the group often have common
experiences or goals. For example, there are
support groups for women who have been
sexually abused, for people with diabetes, and
for whistleblowers. Alcoholics Anonymous is
a type of support group.
The power of a support group comes from
sharing common experiences. Many people
who suffer from discrimination, disease or
assault feel terribly alone — others just do not
understand what they are experiencing.
Meeting others in the same situation, and
listening and talking about what they’ve gone
through, is informative and helps with the
healing process.
If a support group already exists that suits
your situation, then attend and judge for
yourself. If not, you can set one up. All you
need is two or three other people in a similar
situation. Set a time, invite people, meet and
The best way to learn about how to make
support groups work is to attend some and to
talk to people experienced in running them.
There are some standard patterns. People
attending are allowed a fair opportunity to
speak. Others listen without passing judgement. Confidentiality is expected (though there
can never be absolute guarantees of this).
Often there are rules (stated or assumed) about
how long people speak, who can attend, what
issues are addressed, etc. There is no need for
office bearers, minutes, motions or voting.
Meetings are for sharing experiences, not for
conducting business.
Sometimes the biggest challenge is getting a
group going. People may say they are coming
but not show up. Size isn’t all that vital. Even
meeting with just one other person — or
talking on the phone — can be very helpful.
Another problem is when a group gets large,
perhaps over a dozen people. This means time
for each person to speak is limited. A simple
solution is to break into two smaller groups at
the time.
To ensure a smooth operation, it is very
helpful if someone involved has experience in
facilitation of meetings. Sometimes there is a
committed person who is willing to do this —
who may or may not be someone with the
same experiences as the others. Because
people in support groups are often under a lot
of stress, there can be conflicts. An experienced facilitator will be able to deal with
difficulties. You can also consult books dealing
with facilitation. Here are a few suggestions.
• Make sure everyone is introduced. A key
part of any meeting is meeting people.
• Make sure ground rules are clear. Is
smoking permitted? What time will the
meeting finish? Who is facilitating? For
sensitive and personal issues, it’s often wise to
request that people treat matters as confidential, but warn everyone that there can be no
guarantees, so they should take that into
• Give everyone a chance to speak who
wants to. This might be at each meeting or
over a series of meetings. This may mean
setting a time limit for each person’s story.
Even for the best facilitator, it can be a
challenge getting a speaker who is passionate
or distressed when telling their own story to
operate within a strict time limit.
• If the aim is support, then hostile
comments by others should be discouraged and
The whistleblower’s handbook
openly countered. It can help to say that no
one has to agree with anyone else, or believe
someone else’s story, and that the aim is to
help each person to help themselves.
• Before finishing, make arrangements for
any future meetings and be clear about who
has responsibility for them.
A support group helps, in several ways, in
the process of building support.1 It puts
people with similar concerns in touch with
each other, gives them insights into the
problem they confront, gives them the energy
to keep going, and so can provide a launching
point for action.
Creating an action group
As the name implies, the primary purpose of
an action group is action — doing something to
get things changed. “Action” can be defined in
various ways. It can include:
• writing letters,
• making phone calls,
• face-to-face lobbying,
• circulating petitions,
• soliciting support door-to-door,
• producing leaflets,
• holding meetings,
• joining rallies,
• speaking on street corners,
• joining a strike, boycott or sit-in.
There are all sorts of action groups, such as
environmental and human rights groups, of
which the best known are Greenpeace and
Amnesty International.
The primary aim of a support group is to
help individuals by sharing experiences. An
action group, in contrast, is oriented to doing
things involving, or communicating to, people
outside the group. In practice, the two are
often mixed. Action groups provide support
and some support groups decide to take
action. There can be a tension between the two
1. The word ‘support’ is used here in two related
but slightly different ways. A support group provides
mutual help, whereas ‘building support’ means a
process of winning allies.
functions, and it’s best to be clear just what is
If you are interested in changing the system,
first find out if there is an action group that
already exists, even in a related area. For
example, if you have discovered that a certain
bank is misleading farmers and small businesses and stripping them of their assets, you
should investigate any action groups that deal
with the banking sector or, more generally,
with economic issues or corruption. One of the
best ways to find out what groups exist is to
contact other groups. Activists often know
what’s happening outside their own area of
special interest. Libraries have lists of community organisations.
If there’s no group, you can start one. You
just need to find other people who have similar
concerns and call a meeting. If your concerns
are specific, you may need to broaden the
issue. Your personal interest may be in
exploitative practices by a particular bank; you
can broaden this to include all banks, all
financial institutions, or even corporate exploitation of customers generally. There is value in
campaigns that target particular organisations
but there is also value in developing a broad
picture of the problem.
What should an action group do? That’s an
enormous topic. There are lots of skills
involved, such as writing media releases,
motivating members, planning campaigns,
producing leaflets, obtaining funds, running an
office and organising vigils and rallies. The best
way to learn such skills is through practice.
Try to find an experienced activist who will
give you tips, or join an action group — one
you are in sympathy with, of course! — in
order to learn skills. In most cities there are
dozens or hundreds of action groups of all
sizes, orientations and styles. In rural areas
and small towns, there may not be so much to
choose from. Nevertheless, there are usually
some people who have experience in taking
action. Ask around to find out who they are
and then approach them to learn what you can.
There are also some good books on taking
Building support
action (see the references section at the end of
this book).
An action group doesn’t need to be large to
be effective. In a group with a dozen members,
often just one, two or three are the driving
force and do much of the work. So if you have
a group with just two or three activists, that is
enough to accomplish a lot. Indeed, many
groups that seem impressive on the outside are
mostly the work of one dedicated individual
who writes letters, produces a newsletter,
organises meetings, and appears on the media.
Suppose you have exposed an operation in
which trade licences are given to people
without proper qualifications in exchange for
various favours. There are attempts to
discredit your claims, your work is put under
intense scrutiny and you have been threatened
with losing your job. If you write a letter to
the top manager, that won’t help much —
that’s where the threat came from! Also, a
letter from you on your own behalf has limited
impact because it can be dismissed as special
pleading. But if someone else writes to the
manager expressing concern about the licence
issue and supporting your role, that’s a different story. It accomplishes several things:
• it involves someone else supporting your
• it shows the manager that someone else
supports your stand;
• it provides an example to others of how
they might support your stand.
The someone else can be called a “third
party.” The first and second parties are you
and the manager (or perhaps the organisation
as a whole). In a dispute between two parties,
anyone else is a third party. Third parties are
independent and often seen that way. The
whole process of building support involves
getting third parties to take your side.
When members of Amnesty International
write to governments on behalf of political
prisoners, their impact comes from being seen
to be third parties. They are “someone else”
and they care. AI members do not write on
behalf of prisoners in their own countries. One
reason is that appeals have greater impact
when they come from someone who has no
obvious personal stake in the issue. Another is
possible danger from supporting local dissidents — also a relevant consideration in the
case of whistleblowers.
In pursuing your own case, it is a great
advantage to have someone else take initiatives
on your behalf. The more independent the
person seems to be, and the less they stand to
gain, the better. Lawyers are not perceived as
independent; after all, they are paid to be
advocates. Family members or business
colleagues are a little better. Someone from a
field with a reputation for independence, such
as a judge or scholar, is even better. Of course,
reputations can be created and destroyed.
Some lawyers can establish an aura of objectivity and some scholars can be discredited.
Back to the writing of letters. If one third
party writing a letter to the manager has an
impact, then the impact is increased if several
others write letters. This shows the manager
that quite a number of people know about the
issue and are concerned enough to take the
effort of writing.
How are you to get people to write such
letters? You can, of course, talk to them,
explain the case and give them information on
who to write to. At this point, having a writeup about the case, with a few documents to
back it up, is quite effective. It also means that
you can take the issue more widely. For
example, you can post your write-up to
selected people in other parts of the country
or even overseas.
The whistleblower’s handbook
Imagine you are a chief executive officer.
Your deputy has reported that an employee,
Jones, whose performance is suspect, has
made scurrilous allegations about impropriety
in a subsidiary. Which approach do you take
more seriously?
The rave You flick through a fat wad of
paper from Jones. You read a few paragraphs, but it’s not quite clear at first glance
what the allegations are. You notice that
Jones’ document — an “open letter” — has
been sent to dozens of politicians, government
officials and prominent figures. It’s filled with
claims about corruption, denounced in
POINTS!!! In fact, you may not read this at all:
your secretary might have eliminated it from
your in-tray as not worthy of attention.
The concerned query Three letters have
arrived in the past month from individuals
expressing concern about the allegations that
Jones has raised. They ask you to look into the
matter personally with an open mind. They
also say that they have the highest regard for
Jones’ integrity and performance.
The rave might be based on a foundation of
facts, yet it is quite unlikely to be effective
because it is not targeted, makes excessive
and unsupported allegations, uses the wrong
style and it comes from the aggrieved party.
The concerned query is written personally
addressed (to the CEO), is a query rather than
a sweeping accusation, is modest in style and
comes from someone who is apparently
independent. The concerned query may not be
effective either, but it has a better chance.
There is no single “best style.” What’s
appropriate for a CEO is not what works best
for a radio sound-bite. The point is that the
style should be tailored for the audience and
the purpose.
Sending letters, and getting others to send
letters, can be a potent method of building
support. Letters to a boss, administrator or
politician may not change anything directly,
but they do involve people taking action. To
take the issue a bit more broadly, letters can go
to others, such as other organisations, action
groups, people with a special interest in the
area, and the media. There are numerous
variations. If someone is willing to give
support by writing a letter, think carefully
about where it might have the most impact. A
letter to the president sounds good, but alternatives might be better. What about a letter to
a newsletter of a trade union or professional
association? A letter that is seen by many
others is more likely to build further support.
Letters can be hand delivered, posted, faxed
or emailed. The old-fashioned printed letter
still has a certain edge in terms of presentation
and impact. A fax gives an impression of
greater urgency. Email has the advantage of
being very easy to send and reply to. By the
same token, many people receive so much
email that one more may be lost in the clutter.
That’s all the more reason to take a lot of care
in presenting a clear and succinct message.
Leaflet campaigning
A typical leaflet is a sheet of paper that
presents a point of view. It can readily be
given to someone, for example stuck in a
mailbox or passed out on a street corner.
Many leaflets are commercial or promotional,
for example about a restaurant or a concert. A
leaflet is also a potent tool for exposing social
problems. It has a long and illustrious history.
Leaflets have several important advantages.
You can retain full control over what is said,
yet get the message out to dozens, hundreds or
thousands of people. The cost is relatively
How to produce a leaflet? The best foundation is the write-up you prepared. There are a
few other things to look out for.
• Make sure that what you write is readily
understood by a person who knows nothing at
all about the situation. In other words, know
your audience. Have one or two people who
are complete outsiders to the issue read a draft
and give you comments.
• Appearance is more important than with a
straight write-up. Decide on the style you
think appropriate and then get help and advice
in presentation. Choose a suitable size and
font for the title and text. Think about whether
you want graphics, such as photos and
cartoons. Do you want it on coloured paper?
Building support
The choice of style affects people’s responses.
Depending on the issue and the audience, you
may want a sober, text-based leaflet or a flashy
and dramatic leaflet.
• Before printing or photocopying the
leaflet, check and double-check everything
carefully. You will be judged by its quality and
may be attacked for its weakest point.
There are many ways to distribute a leaflet.
It all depends on who you want to reach. You
may seek only a limited audience, and so just
give copies to a few friends or co-workers.
Remember, though, that as soon as you hand
one out, it can be copied or passed on and so
get to many more people. That’s usually the
To distribute copies at a workplace, you
can pass them out to people directly or stick
them on desks or in mailboxes. You can send
them to people by post, put them in people’s
mailboxes at home, and pass them out at
meetings or on the street. If others are willing
to help, that’s all the better.
Email campaigning has many similarities to
leaflet campaigning. Although many people
whip off an email message in a few seconds,
the quality often suffers. On an important
issue where you are seeking support, it is
worth spending a lot of time polishing your
message. The subject line and opening sentences of an email message are as crucial as the
title to a leaflet — they determine whether
people will read any further. As in the case of
leaflets, it’s worthwhile getting comments on a
draft before proceeding. It may be best to put
the entire text into the email message. An
alternative is to have a full treatment on a web
site and use email to publicise it.
Email can be sent to specific individuals, to
entire departments or organisations (depending
on the email system) and to discussion groups.
Knowing the audience is crucial to having an
impact. It’s possible that your message may
sink without a trace, or it may create a tremendous outcry, depending on what you say and
who you say it to. Since email is simple to
copy or forward, it is possible that your
message will be circulated more widely than
you imagined.
The activist with no name
It is possible to produce leaflets and send
email while remaining anonymous. Lots of care
needs to be taken. To begin, it usually means
working alone, or with those you can trust
absolutely — a rare breed when pressures
become intense. It means leaving no traces that
can reveal your identity. To produce a leaflet,
the production should be done using machines
that are either used by lots of people or are
somewhere that can’t be tracked down or
linked to you. The paper also should not
provide links back to you. Distribution also
requires care. Use gloves to avoid fingerprints.
One method is put leaflets in people’s
mailboxes, going out in the very early morning
or at night, perhaps even wearing a disguise.
Anonymous email is easier, just requiring use
of an anonymous remailer. For both leaflets
and email, though, it is the content and style
that is most revealing. What you say may
reveal knowledge that only a few people have,
and the way you write, spell or format the text
may provide clues to a sleuth.
Although anonymity is difficult to achieve,
it is possible. More importantly, is it a good
There are some important advantages to
openness. It usually gives greater credibility,
by giving authenticity to claims and showing
that someone is willing to stand up for what
they believe. It also provides a focal point for
sympathisers. Mobilising further support is
easier. Feedback, dialogue and debate are
easier. (Replies are possible through anonymous remailers.)
Anonymity has the advantage of limiting
the chance of reprisals. This is especially
important if violence is possible or if others,
such as family members, may be targeted. On
the other hand, sometimes there are witchhunts for the person responsible for an
anonymous leak, leading to innocent parties
being victimised. Anonymity can be an
The whistleblower’s handbook
advantage when a person can be readily
stigmatised, for example a former criminal
exposing police corruption, so much so that
the message is lost by scapegoating the
If anyone at all knows what you’re doing,
your anonymity may be broken. In witness
protection schemes run by police, a crucial
witness can be kept in a secret location or
given an entirely new identity. But some
police know the details — and corrupt police
may jeopardise the whole operation. Often
openness and publicity are a safer route. If an
attack is made on a well-known witness, this
can backfire on the attackers — and they may
realise it.
Each approach has its own record of
success and failure. There are, of course, many
successful open challenges to problems. There
are also cases in which anonymous tips, leaks
and campaigns have made the difference. In
some organisations there are regular newsletters produced by anonymous employees or
former employees.
The decision needs to be made by weighing
up the advantages and disadvantages of each
option, in the light of your own values.
Generally speaking, the more support you
have, the better and safer it is to be open.
Anonymity may be better when you are
operating in an extremely corrupt and hostile
environment where inside knowledge, given to
outsiders, may make a difference.
Using media
One of the most potent ways of building
support is through coverage in the mass media
— newspapers, radio, television, magazines. If
you stick entirely to official channels, you
may avoid the media (though it might get
involved even then). If you use the strategy of
building support, then you should consider
using the media at some stage.
When trying to expose a problem, the media
can generate awareness with dramatic speed.
When faced with a corrupt or recalcitrant
bureaucracy, media coverage is one of the few
things that has a chance of denting business as
usual. On the other hand, sometimes the media
will refuse to touch a story. At other times
they will turn against dissidents and make
things far worse.
If you’re going to use the media, then it
helps to understand their operations a bit.
After all, organisations pay vast amounts of
money, for advertising and public relations, to
use the media for their own ends.
For the commercial media, there are two
main driving forces to be aware of. The first is
profit and is mainly the concern of owners and
top managers. On the surface, the media’s goal
is to sell its message to readers and listeners;
from a financial point of view, the media’s goal
is to sell audiences to advertisers.
The second important driving force is
competition to get a good story, which is
mainly the concern of journalists. Many
stories are never run or are put on back pages,
often due to shortage of space and audience
attention and sometimes to inhibition, such as
the risk of a defamation suit. Journalists like to
have their stories run, and run as prominently
as possible.
The dynamics of media operation has led to
the creation of a set of factors for what makes
a good story. These are called “news values.”
Journalists and editors understand news values
intuitively and will judge events by them
instantly. Journalists and editors look for
stories involving:
• local relevance;
• human interest;
• conflict;
• action (especially for television);
• prominence (famous figures rather than
• timeliness;
• perceived consequences.
If the president of the United States is
impeached, that is a big story. If Buddhists in
Sri Lanka have been promoting communal
harmony for the past 20 years, there’s no
story. Complex stories pose a special diffi-
Building support
culty and often are dropped or drastically
Stories about dissent and whistleblowing do
have a chance. They involve personalities
(human interest) and conflict, and sometimes
prominent organisations. Current cases are far
more newsworthy than old ones.
It’s important to realise the news values
involved. You might believe that the real issue
is systematic discrimination due to deepseated bias and distorted organisational structures. That won’t get much attention, even
though some journalists may be sympathetic.
But if the issue is couched as claims of bias by
several individuals who have been victimised
as a result, then it becomes “a story.” The
personalities and conflict make all the difference.
Using the media thus involves compromises. You may think attention should be
directed at the organisation and its deficiencies.
The only story that may get published might
be about the treatment of an employee who
spoke out.
Even with their limitations, the media can
be a powerful force against social problems.
That’s primarily because they carry messages
to large numbers of people, some of whom are
likely to be sympathetic. The media thus are
tools for building support. This is true even
though many stories are distorted and unbalanced. In addition, many journalists and
editors do care about the issues and do their
utmost, within the constraints of media
culture, to get a message across.
Official channels are designed to limit the
number of people who know about a claim.
They are a system that organisations know
how to handle, following procedures that are
relatively predictable. The media, in contrast,
are out of their control, taking a story to all
and sundry.
Those who routinely operate through
official channels — such as lawyers —
commonly advise against seeking media
coverage. They are not trained and seldom
skilled in using the media. More fundamentally, media coverage gets in the way of their
methods. For lawyers, legal procedures are the
way they know how to handle things, and
other methods are a distraction or disruption.
Some whistleblower laws specifically rule out
protection if the whistleblower goes to the
media before using official channels.
Don’t let this deter you from using the
media. If you’re aiming to build support, you
should always consider media coverage
Comparing methods
If you aim to build support, using the media is
one approach — but not the only one. As we
have seen, awareness can be fostered using
face-to-face meetings, letters, petitions,
leaflets, email, support groups and action
groups, among others. It’s worth comparing
several of these.
With letters and leaflets, what is said is
controlled by those who write them. The
audience is mostly those who receive them
directly, though people can make copies of
letters and circulate leaflets more broadly. The
mass media, in contrast, cannot be controlled
but reach a much wider audience. Although
many people are cynical about the media, a
story often has considerable credibility. Note
that these assessments are generalisations.
For example, your letter may be badly written
and have low credibility. On rare occasions,
you may be so crucial to a major media story
that you have some control over the way it’s
Media coverage
often great
targeted plus others
often high
fairly high
So, let’s say you’ve decided that media coverage would be a good idea. Before you approach
a journalist or issue a media release, you need
to be prepared. Here are some things to be
prepared for.
• What are the facts about the case? Who,
what, when, where, how?
• Who are you? You need to think about
how much you want to say about yourself.
• Are there any documents? Depending on
the case, journalists may want copies.
• Is there anyone else to contact? This
includes people who will confirm your claims
and sometimes people on the other side. Have
phone numbers ready.
If you have a concise write-up, that is a
wonderful advantage — it can help a journalist
make sense of the issue and get the facts right.
But it’s not essential.
Journalists are not an alien species. They
are just people like you and me, doing a job as
well as they know how. Most of them are
friendly. Some will be highly sympathetic to
your cause; a few may be hostile, perhaps due
to their personal views or political affiliation.
Most of them will behave professionally,
within their own codes of professional
practice. It helps to understand the pressures
they operate under.
• Time pressures. Most journalists are
incredibly busy. They have to meet deadlines,
after all. You may have a wonderful story to
tell, but they don’t have five hours or even half
an hour to listen to it. Indeed, to be really
effective you should be able to summarise the
main points in the first minute of a conversation, or in the first couple of sentences in a
media release.
Your case is the biggest thing for you, but a
journalist may have a deadline in two hours
with three stories to write. So be brief to start
with and find out if there is a chance for a
longer talk. If your case is a significant one, or
if a journalist has the time to do a major
investigation, there may not be quite as much
of a squeeze on time. But that’s the exception.
Journalists are usually in a rush. They want
documents immediately, which usually means
fax or email rather than the post. Be prepared.
• On the record. Remember that anything
you say could potentially end up reported —
even if you specify “background” or “off the
record.” If you don’t want something reported,
don’t mention it. Journalists will try to steer
the conversation in certain directions, seeking
what they believe is the best story. You can
follow if you’re happy with the direction, but
don’t reminisce about your personal life unless
you’re willing to have everyone read about the
most revealing anecdote.
• Balance. Most journalists seek to present
a “balanced” story. That usually means
presenting both sides. After talking to you, the
journalist may contact your worst enemy.
Even a journalist who is very sympathetic to
you may put in statements presenting the
other side. So don’t expect everything to go
your way. If a story has nothing critical about
you, it may appear unbalanced and lack
credibility. Remember that a story that seems
balanced to readers may seem incredibly unfair
to the other side. If you are in a struggle with a
powerful organisation, even the slightest
criticism of the organisation is like a slap in the
face of top officials.
• Editing. Journalists do not have final
control over their stories. An editor decides
whether they get published and how prominently. Someone else writes the title. Sometimes the article is subedited, which may
involve rewriting sentences and deleting
paragraphs. If there is a potential for defamation, a lawyer may recommend changes or
deletions. You won’t get to see any of this. If
the story doesn’t appear at all, it may be
because it was never written, because it didn’t
meet the editor’s criteria (“news values”),
because there wasn’t enough space, or because
it got deleted by mistake. If it appears, it may
have been chopped and changed by various
people. So don’t blow up and curse the
journalist or editor. Make an enquiry to find
Building support
out what happened, and find out if there’s
anything you can do to help the process along.
It’s worth visiting a newsroom to get a
feeling for the overwhelming supply of
information and of the rush, the chaos and the
ease by which a story can be lost in the
process. You want attention from the media,
but so do lots and lots of other people.
• Angles. Journalists and editors need a peg
on which to hang your story. It’s not timely to
report that corruption has been going on in the
department for years. But if you’ve just sent a
letter to the head documenting some instances,
that is a peg. Journalists have a good idea of
what “angles” can be used to make something
into a story. You can help, sometimes, by
suggesting ideas or by taking actions that
provide angles, such as writing a letter, releasing a report, circulating a leaflet or holding a
meeting or rally.
Media coverage comes in fits and starts. You
can be besieged by demands from the media
one week and then ignored the next. Part of the
reason is that media channels feed off each
other. For example, staff at many radio
stations go through the newspapers every day
searching for people or stories they might
want to follow up. So if there’s an article
about your case in a major daily, then you
might well receive calls from several radio
stations soon after, inviting you to be interviewed. (Less often do newspapers take their
cue from radio or TV programmes.) Another
part of the reason is that when a story
“breaks” — first becomes reported — it is
seen as worthy of coverage. A few days or
weeks later, depending on the issue, it is dated
and no longer considered newsworthy.
This is when it can become clear that the
media are using you and your story just as
much as you are using them. You know that
the issue that concerns you is an ongoing one
that deserves continuing attention. But from
the media’s point of view, it is probably only
of short-term interest. It might be a one-day
A person with plenty of skill in generating
coverage can, to some extent, overcome the
media’s short attention span. First, it’s
necessary to provide an ongoing flow of
material that is newsworthy. For example, if
you have documentation about abuses in an
institution, sometimes it can be effective to
release it bit by bit, over a matter of months,
rather than in one batch. If you are using
official channels, this can be dramatised: a
submission, some testimony, a visitor
commenting on the case, a protest meeting —
each step can be promoted as a story. Another
important part of keeping a story in the media
over time is working with specific journalists.
Once they have studied the issue enough to
write a story, then a follow-up is relatively
easy. They may also develop a commitment to
the issue. What you have to do is continue to
supply them material and access. If you give a
big scoop to someone else, that’s not good
Do you have to stick with the same
journalists? What if they don’t seem to be
treating you fairly? There are implicit rules and
expectations that apply. If you’re new to the
game, you can’t be expected to know them. So
ask. Ask people with experience in using the
media, and ask journalists themselves.
If you start receiving media coverage, it can
seem like a great thing. It can even become
addictive! It’s healthy to remember that media
coverage is not the goal. It’s only a means to
an end. In this case it’s a component of a
strategy to build support. Building support is
a method for helping deal with the problem
you’re concerned about.
Sometimes the media works miracles in
building support, making thousands of people
aware of an issue and making it difficult for
powerholders to continue as before. On other
occasions it may seem to have no impact at all
— a flash in the pan. Media coverage is not a
Sometimes a story in the media builds
support in an obvious and practical way, by
leading to contacts. Someone reads a story in
The whistleblower’s handbook
the newspaper or hears you on the radio and
contacts you. Maybe the same thing happened
to them. Maybe they have more information.
Maybe they need help or advice. Maybe they
want to help.
The media are tools to put you in touch
with others with similar interests. You might
spend years discussing your case with friends
and acquaintances, yet only reach a few
hundred people. One media story might be all
it takes to put you in touch with a like-minded
person outside your normal circle of contacts.
Members of support groups and action groups
know that media coverage is one way to bring
in new members.
Media coverage is frequently a powerful
tool for whistleblowers — but not always. On
some issues, it is impossible to obtain media
coverage. There are several explanations.
• Your story might not be newsworthy. It
could be too old, too narrow, too amorphous
or too complex. You need to see whether
there’s an angle that could be taken up.
• Your story might create too great a risk of
defamation. If publishing a story opens a
media company to costly litigation, this is a
deterrent. The story can go ahead if the likely
benefits — wider circulation, greater prestige
— outweigh the likely costs. But if the facts
aren’t quite solid enough or if the target is
known for suing, that may make the difference.
If your story is really big, that may be enough
to overcome the risks. But if it’s only a minor
story to start with, legal risks can sink it.
• Your story may threaten powerful
interests that have direct or indirect influence
with media interests. Say you’re exposing a
company for false advertising. If the manager
of the company is friends with the editor of
the newspaper, that may scotch the possibility of a story. Or perhaps the company runs a
lot of advertising in the paper. In many small
towns and some cities, there are close links
between top people in business, government,
media, professions and other fields. Your
opponents may have powerful friends and this
may rule out local media coverage. If you are
trying to expose bias or corruption in the
media themselves, getting media coverage is
even harder.
If your story is newsworthy but is
suppressed due to the local establishment, one
solution is to look to media without local ties.
If the city’s newspaper won’t touch your
story, what about a newspaper in another part
of the country, or a national newspaper? It’s
also possible to go international, especially if
there are specialist outlets for your issue.
Sometimes an article in a newspaper or
magazine published in another country is the
best way to open up the issue locally.
Remember again that media coverage is not
the goal in itself. The strategy is to build
support. If the media won’t touch the issue,
then you just need to rely on other methods
such as letters, leaflets and action groups.
An even worse scenario is that the media
launch a concerted, unscrupulous, unbalanced
attack on you and your cause. This does
happen, whether you are trying to use the
media yourself or not.
Lesley Pinson comments
It’s very important to decide whether you
want to use print or electronic media —
newspapers and magazines or TV and radio.
Each has a different way of presenting a story
and requires different things from you.
You may or may not be willing or confident
enough to appear on TV or to conduct a radio
interview. TV also depends on visual effects.
A story about illegal dumping or faulty
equipment would provide useful footage for
TV whereas a story about financial fraud might
provide little for TV to present visually.
TV and radio often follow print media and
thus a newspaper story may lead to greater
overall coverage by TV and radio. Also, an
article in a local paper can lead to the mainstream media picking up on the story later.
You will have differing levels of control
over what is published, depending on which
media you choose to use.
Building support
It is worth monitoring different papers,
radio programmes and TV shows to see how
stories are presented and which types of
stories are being told. If your story has political implications, some papers are more left or
right wing than others.
It is also worth being aware of who is
sponsoring (via advertising) various media
outlets. Some commercial TV stations and
newspaper, for instance, may be reluctant to
publish a story that is critical of one of their
major advertising clients.
Whilst monitoring different media outlets, it
is worth making a note of various journalists
who have presented similar stories or who
have presented stories in a way that appeals to
you. Direct contact with a journalist who you
feel might be sympathic to your story, or have
some knowledge of the issue from previous
stories, is far more likely to achieve a result
than a completely cold call. It also won’t hurt
to appeal to the journalist’s ego with some
reference to their previous work, especially
something just published. This is a useful way
to start the conversation.
• Defence and initiative are both required. If
you are having any impact at all, you are likely
to come under attack. You may be harassed,
lose your job, be the subject of vicious
rumours, or even come under a concentrated
media barrage. Defending against such attacks
is vital. At the worst times, return to basics.
Review your goals. Consult with your most
loyal supporters. Make plans based on
building support. If the attack is unfair, and
you can show that it is unfair, you can use that
to build support.
As well as defending against attacks, you
need to make initiatives, otherwise the agenda
is always set by your opponents. Again,
review your goals, consult and make plans.
• Be ready to reassess your strategy. If
your strategy doesn’t seem to be working, do a
careful examination. Is it because you aren’t
doing it right, because the other side is too
strong, or because it’s a bad strategy? Even if
your strategy seems to be working, it may be
worth examining. Perhaps you can do better.
Perhaps there’s a trap looming.
The ongoing struggle
The strategy of building support is seldom a
short-term solution. Indeed, it is best seen as a
process rather than a solution. In the long
term, social problems will only be solved if
lots of people become aware of them and are
willing to take action. If your concern is bias in
a single appointment, then by the time you
build support it may be too late to do
anything. But if your concern is bias in
appointments as an ongoing problem, then
building support has real potential. For the
ongoing struggle, there are several things to
keep in mind.
• The struggle has phases and ups and
downs. There can be periods of intense action
and periods where nothing seems to happen.
Interest in taking action can wax and wane. By
being aware of this, you can avoid being too
optimistic during the up phases or too
discouraged during the down phases.
The sabotage option
• A systems analyst leaves a firm but leaves
behind a “logic bomb” that, half a year later,
wipes out the firm’s entire computer files and
• A blast furnace operator, by purposely
not making quite the right adjustments, allows
a shutdown to occur, at great expense.
• A lawyer, about to leave his company,
sends out bogus letters to clients under his
head’s name, undermining the reputation of the
• A warehouse employee switches off the
electricity for the cold room over the weekend.
• A packaging worker adds a slip of paper
with an unpleasant message to thousands of
gifts posted out to competition winners.
These are examples of sabotage at work.
Such sabotage has a long history, and can be
The whistleblower’s handbook
found in all manner of occupations. Sometimes
workers, under intense pressure, can only
obtain relief by causing a disruption to
machinery, and the person who does it has
wide support. Sometimes a single disgruntled
employee takes action as a method of revenge.
Is sabotage a useful option for dealing with
problems such as corruption? Usually not.
There are some cases where sabotage can
never be justified. For a mechanic to “fix” a car
so that it breaks down could put someone’s
life in danger. For a farmer to poison a neighbour’s property is environmental vandalism.
For a doctor to purposefully make an operation fail amounts to assault or murder. These
sorts of criminal tactics are sometimes used
against whistleblowers and social activists.
Whistleblowers seldom even think of
sabotage as an option. They are often the most
committed and hard-working of employees,
with pride in doing their jobs well. To do less
than one’s best for others is repellent.
Nevertheless, after being treated in the most
abominable way by a management that cares
only about its power and is willing to do
anything to cover up problems, even the most
conscientious employee may begin to have
dark thoughts of revenge. There are several
reasons, though, why sabotage is not a good
• Sabotage seldom tackles the problem in a
direct way. If a company is corrupt, then
wiping its computer files certainly causes
havoc but does little or nothing to expose the
corruption or institute a process to overcome
• Sabotage usually has to be carried out in
secrecy. This means that it has to be an individual or small group operation, with little
chance of involving large numbers of people.
Hence it is a poor way to build support, since
sympathisers can only observe rather than
• Sabotage can lead to increased support for
management and antagonism towards the
saboteur. If co-workers or clients are seriously
inconvenienced, they may turn against the
person they believe is responsible. So powerful is this effect that sometimes a scheming
management will carry out the sabotage itself
but blame it on someone else. The same thing
happens when an agent, for example paid by
the police, joins an action group or attends a
rally and tries to provoke violence, knowing
that violence by protesters will often discredit
Thus, there are some strong reasons against
sabotage as a strategy to fix problems.
However, sabotage can’t be ruled out automatically. For example, many factory workers
in occupied Europe under the Nazis worked
slowly, made more mistakes than necessary
and sometimes wrecked equipment, at great
risk to themselves, all in an attempt to reduce
output that served the Nazi war machine.
An ethical resister can ask several questions
in making a decision.
• Could sabotage lead to risks to physical or
mental health or the environment? If so, it’s
not appropriate.
• Does sabotage help solve the problem? If
not, it’s not a good method. (Is the main
reason revenge?)
• Does sabotage have significant support? If
not, it’s likely to make people more antagonistic.
• Are there any alternatives to sabotage,
especially alternatives that build support? If
so, they are probably preferable.
Ironically, honest attempts to point out
problems are often called “sabotage” or
“treachery.” If corruption is deep-seated, then
exposing it does indeed undermine the usual
way of doing things. It’s important to go
beyond the rhetoric and name-calling and look
at who and what is serving the public interest.
In most cases an open and committed stand
against corruption and bad practice is far more
threatening to vested interests than covert
wrecking. To turn around the language, it is
vested interests who are the real “saboteurs.”
Case studies: considering options
These case studies illustrate problems and strategies in:
• workplace injury
• scientific fraud
• bullying
• financial corruption
• police corruption
• sexual harassment
• an unresponsive anti-corruption agency.
The following case studies illustrate the
process of working out a strategy. Any single
case study cannot easily illustrate multiple
strategies. To partially compensate, I’ve
introduced various “exits,” where the story
would take a different direction following a
particular choice. The early exits are actually
the most common outcomes — almost always
a promotion and was put in charge of testing a
big and urgent order. His duties required him to
assume awkward positions, including exerting
force with his hands above his head. John
began developing pains in his right forearm.
However, being extremely conscientious, he
persisted working for long hours through the
pain, which soon became much worse. Eventually he was unable to work without extreme
pain, which radiated up through his elbow and
shoulder and began appearing in his left
Insiders and outsiders
These case studies focus on insiders: people
closest to the problem, often working for an
organisation. They face the greatest challenges
and have the greatest risk of failure. However,
in each case study there is a role for outsiders
who want to take action. Outsiders usually are
relatively safe from reprisals (though there are
exceptions such as tackling organised crime).
Outsiders therefore have more opportunities
for acting openly. On the other hand, outsiders
often lack the detailed information available
only to insiders. Combining the insights of
insiders with the actions available to outsiders
can produce a powerful force for change.
Exit 1. John arranges for another worker
to finish testing the urgent order. He then
resigns and spends several years off work
before his condition begins to ease.
Exit 2. After reporting his problems to
his supervisor, John is dismissed for failing
to finish the urgent order. He spends
several years off work before his condition
begins to ease.
Exit 3. After reporting his problems to
his supervisor, John is put on “special
duties” that supposedly take his injuries
into account. However, he is victimised in
various small ways, sometimes being given
tasks that are far too difficult to complete
(even if he had been fully fit) and sometimes being given boring and pointless jobs.
When he requests equipment to do his job,
A case of workplace injury
John worked for a major electrical company in
a section that constructed and tested large
transformers. After several years, he obtained
The whistleblower’s handbook
it doesn’t arrive or he is given incorrect
items. He encounters problems obtaining
leave (which had never been a problem
before), is asked to fill out forms over and
over (copies are supposedly “lost”), is
repeatedly transferred to different locations, put on inconvenient shifts and given
no sympathy by his supervisor. In the face
of this petty harassment, eventually he
decides to quit.
John decides to put in a workers’ compensation claim. He scrutinises the workplace’s
occupational health and safety agreement and
finds that management has been negligent: it
should have, but didn’t, provide special
equipment to reduce the risk of strain, institute
mandatory work breaks and warn workers of
the initial symptoms of repetition strain
injury. He discusses the situation with several
Exit 4. Management finds out the John
is preparing a workers’ compensation
claim. Rumours are spread about him being
a poor performer and malingerer who has
manufactured claims about pain to draw
attention away from his own failure and
who is out to benefit his pocketbook at the
expense of others. John is so distraught by
the rumours that he leaves without pursuing the compensation claim.
Exit 5. At the workers’ compensation
hearing, lawyers for the electrical company
produce evidence of John having been in a
minor car accident ten years earlier, which
they claim was responsible for his
problems. John is successful nevertheless.
The company appeals the decision, and the
appeal board reduces his benefits considerably.
John has another option: pursuing a civil
court action on the grounds of negligence. He
finds out about what sort of evidence is required, and talks to some co-workers about
testifying on his behalf. He obtains photos of
the workplace and typical transformers. He
asks about lawyers and is directed to one
experienced with similar cases. He prepares a
comprehensive case.
Exit 6. In court, John’s case begins to
fall apart. Only one of his supportive
witnesses is willing to testify; the others
are too afraid. Several managers and coworkers testify against him, claiming that
he never worked long hours and never
complained about pain or disability before
taking sick leave. The electrical company
presents documents showing that special
equipment had been purchased and installed
well before John began work on the urgent
order. (It is obvious that the dates on these
documents had been falsified.) His own
photos are claimed to be from an earlier
period. His case fails.
Before he goes to court, John makes contact
with a workers’ compensation support group
and meets many others with stories like his
own. He learns that corporate negligence is
commonplace, as are injuries and dirty tricks
to discredit those who make compensation
claims. He obtains a lot of helpful advice on
countering court claims. He compiles a dossier
on his own employer. With help from one
reliable current worker and several former
workers with cases like his own, he obtains
documents that will counter any falsified ones
that the electrical company might use. He goes
to court and wins a substantial amount in
Exit 7. The electrical company appeals.
Meanwhile, employers have been pressing
the government over mounting costs due to
repetition strain injury cases. The government itself is a major employer, many of
whose workers are making claims. The
government puts a low cap on damages
payable through civil courts, making it
impossible to obtain suitable compensation.
Exit 8. The electrical company offers a
settlement. John will receive a substantial
pay-out, but he must agree to a clause
preventing him from saying anything about
the case or the size of his pay-out. Due to
Case studies: considering options
his inability to work, he accepts the settlement. Later, though, he is distressed to
learn that another worker at the company
develops an injury because proper equipment and systems have still not been
Analysis. Employers often attempt to
discredit workers who suffer injuries. A small
minority of workers’ claims may be contrived
(“malingering”) but the bulk are genuine, and
often the employer is culpable. Employers can
always deny responsibility for an injury; in
addition, sometimes they can dispute the very
existence of an injury, as in the case of bad
backs, repetition strain injuries and stress. For
a lone worker to take on an employer or
insurance company that is attempting to avoid
paying compensation can be as traumatic as
the original injury.
What outsiders can do
Join or set up a workers’ compensation action
A case of scientific fraud
Sarah, a talented researcher with several years
of postdoctoral experience, obtained a contract
position in a major lab, where she worked with
several others including the prolific Dr
Williams. Sarah was a hard worker but she
could not believe the tremendous rate at which
Williams produced results. One day, while
glancing at his lab books, she noticed a curious
pattern. It appeared that half of his results
were duplicates of the other half. This made it
seem that he had done twice as many tests as
he actually had.
Exit 1. Sarah says nothing. When
pressed for time she occasionally starts
duplicating her own results just like
Exit 2. Sarah comments to Williams
about the results. He passes it off as a
fluke. The next day Williams’ current lab
book no longer displays the duplicates and
all previous books are locked away. Sarah
gets a bad report and is terminated at the
first available opportunity.
Sarah, having read about some cases of
scientific fraud, knows that she must obtain
proof. Over the next four months, she is able
to photocopy hundreds of pages from
Williams’ lab books. There are quite a number
of instances where half or two-thirds of
Williams’ data are copies of an initial data set
(presumably valid). She makes several sets of
copies and gives one set to a trusted friend.
Exit 3. Sarah gives all the evidence to the
senior scientist in the lab. He dismisses the
duplications as insignificant. He says the
basic results are correct and have been
confirmed by other labs. The only effect is
to change the size of some of the error bars.
She writes to the journals that published
Williams’ research. They do not respond.
She writes to their scientific society and
gets a noncommital response. Sarah gets a
bad report and is terminated at the first
available opportunity.
Exit 4. Sarah tries to build support by
talking to other researchers in the same lab.
It’s not long before Williams finds out.
Sarah is transferred to menial duties, her
equipment is tampered with while she is
away, and rumours are spread about her
dishonesty and psychological hang-ups.
She cannot stand the strain and resigns.
Sarah investigates the issue of scientific
fraud. She soon learns that formal procedures
for addressing scientific fraud hardly ever work
and that the accuser often pays the penalty.
She decides to lie low for the time being and
gather evidence and support. She consults a
statistician who agrees to analyse the data and
finds that in nearly every case, an initial set of
data is reproduced two or three times. But
usually the duplicated points are not in the
same sequence and so not readily identifiable
by casual observation. She also consults with
some senior scientists who are known for their
investigations into scientific fraud. They say
that Williams’ actions are definitely improper.
The whistleblower’s handbook
Fiddling with data is not uncommon, though
the total scale of Williams’ faking is unusual.
Sarah writes up a concise, rigorous treatment of Williams’ fraud, backing it with
sample data sheets. She prepares a plan of
action to ensure the issue is not covered up.
Exit 5. She waits until she is reappointed
to a five-year post, with a promotion, and
then takes her report to the head of the
institution for a meeting. The head promises to seek independent opinion and to
keep the matter confidential. Within a week
it is obvious that Williams has a copy of
her report, so she goes as planned to the
media, where a science reporter has been
primed with the story. A blitz of newspaper and radio coverage causes a storm in the
institution, which sets up a formal investigation — into both Williams and Sarah! She
finds that some of her lab books are
missing. She is accused, among other things,
of inadequate documentation of her own
research, of false claims for expenses, and
of a false statement about a publication in
her curriculum vitae when she first applied
for a job. The internal inquiry is a whitewash of Williams. Sarah, under constant
scrutiny at work, ponders whether to
continue, to make an appeal for an
independent inquiry, or to leave.
Sarah waits until she obtains a job at
another institution. After settling in and
finding that cheating is not carried out or
condoned, she consults with her boss about
exposing Williams. Her boss says the publicity
will detract from their research, but she also
says she’ll support Sarah if that is what she
wants to do. After discussing the matter with
all of her new colleagues, she releases her
report to the media. So — the same publicity,
the same accusations about Sarah, the same
whitewash. Sarah’s career is held up somewhat, but she has achieved one important aim
without massive cost to herself.
Analysis. Exposing scholarly fraud —
whether it is fudging data, plagiarism or falsifi-
cation of credentials — can be extremely risky.
In developing an effective strategy, Sarah had
to decide whether to use formal channels. She
also had to decide who to talk to. Williams was
charming, talented and ambitious, and had so
many supporters that it was risky talking to
anyone in the institution. As a result, she was
best able to build support from independent
scientists and through media coverage. If the
media had declined to report the story, she
could have circulated her report to scientists in
the field, perhaps with considerable effect.
What outsiders can do
Bring together scientists who have been
victimised for speaking out about fraud. Find
scientists willing to comment on fraud cases
and journalists willing to investigate them.
A case of bullying
Steve worked in a government department in a
large section dealing with trade policy. He was
experienced and got on well with his coworkers. Things changed when a new boss,
Joe, was brought in from another department.
Joe was talented, with a reputation for being a
task-master. He could be charming but also had
a dark side. He would suddenly turn on
individuals, shouting and swearing at them. At
staff meetings he would sometimes humiliate
an individual by making cutting comments
about their work.
Steve soon noticed a pattern. Joe never
attacked those who were totally compliant and
who were no threat to him. But anyone who
showed a bit of independence and talent was a
likely target.
Exit 1. Steve decides to stay on Joe’s
good side, does his bidding and informs Joe
about people who are “stepping out of
Exit 2. Steve leaves for another job as
soon as possible.
Steve does not want to leave, for two main
reasons. He enjoys the work, and he is
Case studies: considering options
concerned about some of his co-workers who
are also friends.
Over a period of months, Steve learns more
about Joe’s method of operation. Joe’s fierce
verbal abuse has lowered morale; several
vulnerable workers have left or gone on leave
for stress. A few who have attempted to stand
up to Joe have suffered from sustained
harassment. Joe finds minor flaws in these
individuals’ work and demands that it be
redone. He arranges assignments so that they
are likely to fail, and then explodes at them
when they do fail. Few can survive such a
sustained attack on their competence.
Exit 3. Steve tries to match Joe at his
game, and exchanges shouts and insults
with him in a major confrontation. Within
the next month, Steve is set up for an
embarrassing failure, receives a formal
reprimand and is given a choice: transfer to
a lesser post or resign.
Exit 4. Steve has a “heart-to-heart” talk
with Joe, informing him of the destructive
effects of his behaviour. Joe seems to listen,
but later Steve is set up for an embarrassing
failure, etc.
Exit 5. Steve goes to talk to Joe’s boss,
asking for some intervention. Joe’s boss
says Joe is producing results and that Steve
should just get on with his job. Steve is
lucky. If Joe’s boss had told Joe about the
meeting, his job would have been on the
Steve does some investigating. He talks to
people who worked under Joe in his previous
jobs. His style was the same then. He was able
to intimidate his subordinates but charm his
superiors, and his talent and hard work won
him promotions in spite of the trauma and
demoralisation he left in his wake.
Steve begins keeping a dossier on Joe. He
talks to Joe’s victims and writes up accounts.
Because he is experienced and trustworthy,
most of them are willing to sign the accounts
when Steve promises not to use them without
permission. Steve finds that some of Joe’s
actions verge on assault, such as when he
grabbed one person’s shirt and threw something towards another.
Steve also finds that Joe makes mistakes
himself. Some of his decisions are flawed, and
he sometimes misuses funds for his own
advantage. This is minor-level abuse of privilege, but it reveals a major double standard
considering Joe’s finding of fault with others.
Exit 6. Steve submits a formal complaint
about Joe, using testimony from several coworkers, to the department’s internal
grievance committee. During the investigation, Joe shows only his good side. The
grievance committee is uncritical of Joe, and
recommends only some shuffling of duties
and meetings with outside mediators. Top
management doesn’t bother to implement
even these recommendations. Joe begins a
focused and subtle harassment of every
individual whose testimony was in the
complaint. (He has found out several names
from material given “in confidence” to the
grievance committee.) Steve is the prime
target, but survives because Joe is promoted to another department.
Steve begins to collect information about
bullying at work. He learns that bullies often
are incompetent and that they bully others to
cover up their own inadequacies. He finds that
in his department bullies are usually tolerated
and that management always sides with bosses
against subordinates, no matter how outrageous the boss’s behaviour.
Exit 7. Steve prepares a summary of key
points about bullying, its effects and how
to respond to it. He circulates copies to all
his co-workers, and this encourages some of
them to resist. He finds two others who are
willing to work with him to formulate a
strategy to deal with Joe. Joe tries every
trick he knows to break up the group,
befriending one and harassing another. The
struggle continues.
Exit 8. Steve prepares a statement about
Joe’s behaviour, making sure that every
The whistleblower’s handbook
statement is backed up by documentation.
After taking a job in the private sector, he
circulates copies of the statement throughout his old department and Joe’s new
department (Joe has been promoted). The
statement severely cramps Joe’s style. Joe
sues Steve for defamation.
Analysis. Bullies in positions of power are
very damaging, yet managements seldom are
willing to act against them. Building support is
difficult when bullies use divide and rule
techniques. Yet if no one stands up to a bully,
the problem will just continue.
What outsiders can do
Circulate information about bullying. Set up a
bullying support group.
A case of financial corruption
Chris had years of experience as an auditor in
financial institutions. After joining a major
bank, she gradually became aware of an operation involving a Third World country,
“Dalenz.” Special low-interest loans were
being given to the Dalenz government against
bank policy, since these were high-risk loans.
Payments from Dalenz — not loan repayments — were being made to the bank and put
into a special fund, which top bank officials
were able to draw on for personal assistants,
cars, family holidays, cruises and lavish
When Chris asked a co-worker about the
situation, she was told that this was standard
practice for Dalenz — all the other banks did
the same — and that the perks provided by
the special fund were a part of the remuneration package for bank executives. It was
simply a matter of convenience that it drew on
Dalenz money.
Exit 1. Chris does her best to make the
Dalenz operation appear normal financially
and to get to a position where she can use
the special fund.
Exit 2. Chris arranges for a transfer to
another section. She’s suspicious about the
Dalenz operation but doesn’t want to risk
her job.
Over a matter of months, Chris finds out
more about the Dalenz operation. By reading
reports of Amnesty International and searching the web, she finds that Dalenz is a brutal
dictatorship known for torturing dissidents
and exploiting the workers. She also finds that
the standard executive remuneration package
includes only some of the perks that come out
of the special fund. She is sure that it is
improper for Dalenz money to go into the
special fund.
Exit 3. Chris talks to the head auditor at
the bank about her concerns, and expresses
her belief that the loans should be stopped
and Dalenz money not accepted for any
purpose, much less the special fund. The
head auditor says that the low-interest
loans are beneficial to the Dalenz people
and that the payments from the Dalenz
government are “just the way they do
business.” Chris says she’s not convinced
and she’d like advice on how to pursue the
issue. That night there is a special delivery
to Chris’s house: all personal items from
her office, a letter dismissing her due to
“urgent administrative reorganisation” and a
cheque for three months’ salary as severance pay.
Exit 4. Without telling anyone in the
bank, Chris writes an anonymous article in
a financial magazine reporting on “financial
irregularities” in Dalenz. Although her bank
isn’t mentioned, there is an immediate
investigation to find the source of the story.
She is a prime suspect, partly because her
denials are half-hearted — lying doesn’t
come easily. All matters concerning the
Dalenz account are removed to higher
levels. Chris’s job becomes highly unpleasant after a witch hunt for the informant
leads to suspicions and petty harassment.
Chris decides to lie low and gather information. Over the next year she collects more
information about repression and corruption in
Case studies: considering options
Dalenz. She makes copies of documents about
payments into and out of the special fund. She
makes contact with two independent specialists, one on Dalenz and one on financial institutions and corruption. She prepares a careful
account of the Dalenz operation at the bank.
Exit 5. Chris makes a formal submission
to the Finance Regulatory Commission, a
government body concerned with violation
of banking codes. Although submissions are
supposed to be confidential, within a
matter of days Chris is dismissed. The
Commission takes 18 months before ruling
that the matters are not in its jurisdiction.
Chris sues the bank for improper dismissal
under whistleblower legislation, but this
fails because she did not use a designated
internal channel first. She makes submissions to several other bodies, to no avail.
Politicians are similarly unhelpful.
Exit 6. Through an action group FJI,
“Financial Justice International,” she is put
in touch with two other ethical resisters, in
different banks, who know about deals with
Dalenz. Together they prepare a comprehensive critique which they publish, under
pseudonyms, in a magazine specialising on
corporate corruption. FJI sends copies to
social welfare groups in Dalenz. After
resigning and setting up an independent
practice, Chris gives her story to the
national media. However, only a few alternative newspapers take it up. The bank
mounts a concerted attempt to discredit
Chris and for several years she barely
makes enough to survive on her independent audit consultancy.
Analysis. When corruption reaches to the
highest levels — top bank officials, regulatory
bodies, politicians — then it is extremely
difficult to bring about change. From a personal point of view, Chris needed to examine
her goals carefully. How important was it to
deal with the problem? How important was
her own career?
What outsiders can do
Join or set up an action group such as
“Financial Justice International.”
A case of police corruption
Tony was nearly 30 when he joined the police.
He had had a number of office jobs and then
studied business computing at university,
developing an interest in fraud and other white
collar crime. After initial police training, he
was paired with an old hand, Smithers, dealing
with cases of burglary. Tony immediately had
to decide how to respond to criminal action by
Smithers and others on the burglary squad.
Often they would steal from the site of a
robbery, taking jewelry, cash and sometimes
other goods. Their justification was that “the
insurance company pays.” If they could find
any drugs, they would take and sell them.
They considered it a normal benefit of the job
— “cream on the cake.”
Exit 1. Tony joins in the stealing. He
later moves up into the corporate crime
section and makes quite a career for himself.
Exit 2. Tony reports the stealing to his
commander. He is immediately removed to
menial office duties, given a bad report and
drummed out of the force.
Tony, through his reading on crime and the
police, knew that this sort of corruption was
commonplace. His toughest task is to not
participate while not raising the suspicions of
his teammates, but he manages to pull this off
by appearing to sympathise with their actions.
He decides to document police theft as much
as possible. He keeps a diary of all robbery
scenes attended, listing goods taken by Smithers and others. He also makes tapes of some of
their conversations, though these were not
easy to interpret due to use of police jargon.
Tony planned to lie low and gather as much
material as possible. He is horrified to witness
several brutal assaults on robbery suspects. He
could understand his teammates’ frustration.
The suspects were almost certainly guilty, yet
in many cases there was not enough evidence
The whistleblower’s handbook
to convict them, even when the police systematically lied under oath to help the prosecution. Tony tapes some of these incidents of
police assault.
Exit 3. After collecting a dossier of
damning material, Tony prepares a
comprehensive submission to the Police
Accountability Agency (PAA), a new body
set up to deal with police corruption. After
making his submission, Tony is called in by
the PAA to discuss what he knows.
Shortly afterwards, Tony comes under
severe attack. The PAA was supposed to
keep his submission confidential, but it
becomes clear that some of its members
have links to corrupt police. Tony is
personally abused by Smithers and others;
the tyres to his car are slashed; he finds
threatening notes in his locker; his wife and
children receive threatening phone calls.
The family cat is found killed. In spite of all
this, he sticks it out. Then, one day, as he is
putting on his jacket, he is arrested. Drugs
and a large wad of cash are found in the
jacket. Complaints about him are filed with
the PAA. He is dismissed. He thinks about
taking the matter to the Ombudsman or a
politician but is deterred by the possibility
of a criminal charge based on his frame-up.
Tony was aware that the sort of abuse and
corruption he was witnessing was tolerated
throughout the force. He decides his only hope
of success lies with popular outrage generated
through media coverage. Police beating of
robbery suspects is, unfortunately, not likely
to produce all that much concern. But Tony
also witnesses some police assaults on innocent individuals, especially homeless people,
youths “with an attitude” and racial minorities.
One particularly brutal attack results in two
young people requiring emergency surgery,
and Tony manages to capture much of this on
Exit 4. Tony takes his documentation to
the local media. However, weeks pass and
nothing appears. Several journalists tell him
that it is a good story but that the media
cannot afford to run it because the police
union has a record for suing, and the costs
would be too great. Tony next takes his
material to the national media. Television
networks are not interested due to lack of a
visual dimension — Tony has no videos.
Most of the national press do not run the
story: it is too much of a local issue to
justify the investigative resources required.
One crusading magazine, though, runs a
major story. Although Tony is not mentioned by name, he is soon identified as the
source, and he soon comes under attack,
though nothing too blatant, since Tony’s
teammates are aware that he might be
recording them. After the media attention
dies down, he is thoroughly framed — with
alteration of official records — put through
serious misconduct proceedings and
dismissed. The magazine makes a major
story of the dismissal, and a few other
media outlets take up the issue at this
point. However, Tony’s career is destroyed.
Tony decides to find allies before going
public. As a precaution, he makes multiple
copies of all his documentation and gave
copies to several trusted friends. He also
manages to obtain a copy of his own police file
— spotless so far — and makes copies to
protect himself in case of future alteration.
After reading further on the problem of
police corruption, Tony realises that it is
systemic in most police forces and that there is
evidence of a national-level “brotherhood.”
Therefore he cannot expect to address the
problem by exposing a few individuals. He
makes contact with a national activist group
dealing with police abuses and, as a result,
meets several police whistleblowers from
around the country. He learns from them the
incredible personal cost of challenging police
corruption from the inside and the virtual
impossibility of bringing about change when
the major political parties are campaigning on
“law and order.”
Case studies: considering options
Exit 5. Tony leaves the police and takes
another job. He joins a minor political party
and works to implement a policy that
would address police corruption.
Exit 6. Tony helps the activist group
write and produce a booklet designed for
people subject to police brutality. The
stress of keeping all his outside activity
with the group a secret becomes too much
and he leaves the force.
Exit 7. Tony decides to keep a low
profile and move as soon as he can to the
white collar crime section. Here he finds an
outlet for his computer skills. Before long it
became clear that corruption pervaded this
area too. The main differences are that there
is no direct violence and the amounts of
money are vastly greater. With his links to
police whistleblowers he is made constantly aware of the difficulty of exposing
problems and building support without
sacrificing his career. He keeps collecting
information, passing it on to criminology
researchers and looking for an avenue to use
it where it might actually change things.
Analysis. It is exceedingly risky to expose
police corruption from the inside, yet exceedingly difficult to tackle it from the outside.
Particular circumstances are required to open
the possibility of real change. Tony had a far
better chance than most, having prior work
experience and skills, yet none of his options
guaranteed anything like success.
What ousiders can do
Set up a police corruption action group. Bring
together police whistleblowers. Campaign to
change policies, such as drug laws, that allow
police corruption to flourish.
A case of sexual harassment
Lydia is a recent engineering graduate who
obtains a job in a major corporation. She was
one of several female engineers appointed at
the same time into an area previously completely dominated by male engineers and
technicians. Lydia needs to learn on the job,
and some of the technicians know more than
anyone about practical things, since many of
the senior engineers have managerial roles.
All the female engineers encounter a degree
of hostility, especially from the technicians.
There is foul language and sexual jokes obviously intended to cause them distress, and
they are undermined by not being told about
certain standard ways of doing things. One of
the other new engineers, Alice, is singled out
for harassment: certain men stare at her body
while ignoring what she says and put pornographic pictures in her desk drawer. There are
incidents where men grab her, ostensibly to
protect her from a danger. Alice confides that
she is thinking about quitting.
Exit 1. Lydia shows little sympathy.
She tries to become “one of the boys,” joins
in laughter at Alice’s expense and ignores
the more serious harassment.
Exit 2. Lydia decides to leave at the first
opportunity. She thinks she will be the next
target after Alice.
Exit 3. Lydia talks to the main harassers,
telling them that Alice is seriously upset
and thinking of leaving. This only encourages them to escalate their attacks. In a
particularly serious incident, Alice suffers a
minor injury and then goes on leave for
stress. Lydia joins Alice in making a formal
complaint to their manager. Nothing
happens for months, and the harassment
continues. Lydia comes under more
systematic attack and eventually leaves.
They take the company to court under
antidiscrimination legislation. The company
fights them tooth and nail, and accuses
them of bad performance and even cheating
to obtain their engineering qualifications.
After two years they lose the case.
Lydia undertakes a systematic study of the
problem. She reads books and articles about
sexual harassment, and also studies male
engineering culture. She talks to sexual harassment counsellors and activists and makes
The whistleblower’s handbook
contact with other female engineers who have
come up against the problem. She finds out
that formal complaints have very little chance
of success.
After talking to them individually, Lydia
calls a meeting of all the female engineers to
share their experiences and information. Some
of them were not aware of how bad things
were for Alice. They agree to support each
other. They begin to systematically collect
information about every incident of harassment.
Exit 4. After the harassment continues,
Lydia and Alice mount a court case under
antidiscrimination legislation, thinking that
the detailed evidence they’ve collected will
allow them to win against the odds. The
case turns their male co-workers against
them and, even without overt incidents, the
hostility leads both of them to resign. After
three tough years they win the case and are
awarded compensation. The company
appeals. After two more years they settle
out of court for a substantial sum which,
however, is small compared to the damage
to their careers. Meanwhile, the court case
has triggered some superficial changes by
management but united the male engineers
and technicians against the two women.
Exit 5. The women decide to approach
one of the company’s new vice-presidents,
the first woman to be appointed to this
level. The VP tells them they should just
tough it out, the same way she did. Later,
when contacting female lawyers and
counsellors, they find that the VP — an
influential person in several circles — has
undermined some of their support.
Lydia realises that to change the culture in
the workplace, it is necessary to get the
support of some male workers. By carefully
observing them, she notices that several of
them refuse to participate in harassment and a
few are obviously repelled by what is
happening but are not game to do anything.
The women speak to several of these men,
emphasising how the harassment is reducing
productivity and reducing the chance of
making the changes needed to keep the
company competitive. They also provide
some leaflets on sexual harassment. Two of the
men are openly sympathetic. (The wife of one
of them is also an engineer, working elsewhere
but confronting similar problems.)
Observing a serious “bump-and-grab”
incident, one of the sympathetic man speaks
critically to the harasser, who in turn becomes
very aggressive and nearly starts a fight. A
manager happens to witness the entire
Exit 6. The harasser is summarily fired.
A trade union official, with strong links to
the most serious harassers, gets the technicians to go on strike, telling them that the
harasser is the victim of a neurotic feminist
who has just broken up with her boyfriend.
After the company agrees to abide by the
decision of an arbitrator, the technicians
return to work. The arbitrator finds that
dismissal was too strong an action, and the
worker is reinstated. The whole episode
mobilises most of the workers behind the
harasser, who is seen as a victim of
Exit 7. Aware of the increasing tensions,
the manager is galvanised into action and is
able to implement a “restructuring” that
mostly separates the serious harassers from
the women. As a result they have an easier
time but the culture in the work group with
the harassers remains deadly.
Analysis. Sexual harassment is a serious
continuing problem, with close links to bullying. If it is deeply entrenched in workplace
culture, a long-term strategy oriented to
building support is necessary.
What outsiders can do
Join or set up support groups for people who
have been sexually harassed. Produce publicity
about the problem. Mount campaigns targeting
notorious harassers.
Case studies: considering options
Case of an unresponsive anti-corruption
Kylie is a middle-ranking manager at a
company that successfully tenders for
government contracts. She becomes aware of a
kick-back scheme by which senior staff at the
agency receive payments from companies in
exchange for favourable treatment. She wants
to expose the scheme but is aware that her
own company might lose some of its contracts
if she does so.
Kylie decides to make an anonymous
submission to the Committee on Government
Corruption (CGC), an independent government-funded agency set up to investigate and
root out corruption in government bodies. Six
months after making her detailed submission,
nothing has happened. She then rings the CGC
and asks what happens with anonymous
submissions. She is told that the CGC
normally doesn’t act on information unless the
informants identify themselves, but that
identities of all informants are kept in the
strictest confidence. With misgivings, Kylie
composes and signs a careful letter asking for
action on her previous submission.
Soon after, her company loses an expected
contract and she is the only person laid off,
though her work had been highly regarded. A
friendly co-worker tells her that she was
suspected of having stabbed the company in
the back.
Exit 1. Kylie, severely burned by the
experience, moves to another part of the
country, obtains another job and vows to
stay out of trouble in future.
Months pass, and no action is taken in
relation to her submission. Kylie obtains a
clerical job and decides to persist with her
concerns. She approaches several other
agencies but is told that the CGC is the most
appropriate body for her complaint. Her calls
to the CGC result in bland assurances that her
submission is “being looked into.”
Exit 2. The CGC is being reviewed after
10 years of operation. Kylie decides to
make a complaint to the review committee,
pointing out the failure of the CGC to
maintain confidentiality. The review
committee, however, gives the CGC a
favourable report. Talking to a member of
the review committee, Kylie is told that
there is not any solid evidence that the
CGC is responsible for her dismissal.
Kylie, talking to her friends about her
problem, is told about someone else who went
to the CGC but obtained no satisfaction. She
contacts this person, hears a similar story to
her own, and is told about others. Soon she has
a list of half a dozen people who are disgusted
with the CGC, either because it has failed to
follow up their information, revealed their
identity, or botched investigations so that the
main culprits escape while penalities are
imposed on a few scapegoats. Kylie realises
that her experiences are typical. She and two
others decide to set up the CGC Reform
Exit 3. The Reform Group decides to
lobby government officials who formally
have oversight over the CGC. They muster
all their evidence and arguments against the
CGC and then prepare submissions and
arrange meetings. After two years it is
apparent that only superficial changes will
be recommended. Most Reform Group
members lose interest due to lack of
The Reform Group decides to adopt a
strategy based on publicity. After preparing
their arguments to be bold and punchy, they
contact some journalists and produce media
releases accusing the CGC of being “clumsy on
corruption.” The resulting media stories bring
in many new members with further stories of
CGC failures. They also stimulate a few
individuals to write letters to newspapers in
defence of the CGC.
CGC officials do not comment after the
first round of stories, obviously hoping the
issue will die down. But as the coverage
continues week after week — stimulated by
The whistleblower’s handbook
new Reform Group members — the CGC
issues its own media releases. It also promotes
stories about successes in dealing with corruption and attacks the Reform Group for being
ignorant and unrepresentative.
Exit 4. The Reform Group maintains its
media campaign and is quite successful in
denting the image of the CGC. Eventually,
though, they run out of “new” stories and
journalists and editors lose interest. The
CGC weathers the storm and continues on
as before, though not as many whistleblowers approach it as before.
Some members of the Reform Group begin
a deeper investigation of the CGC, looking into
its history, record of performance and also at
the record of similar bodies in other countries.
They discover that the CGC had never been
given the resources or mandate to get at the
most significant forms of corruption —
especially corruption linked to the politicians
who had set it up — and that it had gradually
drifted into a pattern of paper-shuffling (to
satisfy stringent bureaucratic reporting
requirements) and focus on a few superficial
but high-profile cases.
Exit 5. These research-oriented members
of the Reform Group prepare several
sophisticated papers about the failure of
government-initiated campaigns against
corruption and get them published in
journals and magazines. This academic
orientation turns off many other members.
In a last-ditch effort to regain momentum,
the Reform Group produces an excellent
leaflet about the weaknesses of the CGC.
However, there is not enough energy to give
it wide distribution.
Some members of the Reform Group decide
that they need to take action into their own
hands. By focussing on the CGC, they were
assuming that salvation came from someone
else. They decide to set up the “People’s
Committee on Government Corruption” or
PCGC. It would take submissions, establish
investigation teams and produce documents. It
soon becomes obvious that this is an enormous
enterprise and that it will be necessary to
concentrate on a few specific areas and types
of corruption. PCGC organisers realise that
they need to set the highest standards for its
investigation teams and that they might be
infiltrated or set up. One early spin-off is that
two workers at the CGC approach the PCGC
with inside information about how the CGC
operates and why it has avoided tackling wellknown areas of major corruption.
Analysis. Government oversight bodies are
often under-resourced and lose any drive to
tackle deep-seated problems. Individuals who
expect results are often disappointed. Their
best chance of changing things comes from
banding together. Even then, it is extremely
hard to counteract the advantages of a government body with formal legitimacy and connections. Sometimes it can be more productive to
take direct action against the problem rather
than continuing with a complaint against an
official body’s lack of action.
What outsiders can do
Join or set up a group such as the CGC
Reform Group or the People’s Committee on
Government Corruption.
Whistleblowing can have devastating consequences for health, finances and relationships. You
should take steps to maintain each of them.
The personal consequences of whistleblowing
or otherwise challenging the system can be
severe. Unless you’ve been through it yourself, it can be worse than you can possibly
imagine. There are impacts in three major
Health. The stress of coming under attack
can lead to headaches, insomnia, nausea,
palpitations, spasms and increased risk of
infections, cancer, stroke and heart attack,
among others. Psychologically, impacts can
include depression, anxiety and paranoia.
Whistleblowers often suffer post-traumatic
stress disorder.
Finances. Many whistleblowers suffer in
their careers, losing out on possible promotions and new jobs. More seriously, they may
take a cut in pay or lose their jobs. On top of
this, legal and other expenses are often more
than £5,000 and sometimes more than
Relationships. Getting involved in a major
case plays havoc with personal relationships,
due to the allegations and rumours, the stress
and the time and effort taken fighting the case.
This can cause friends and relatives to stay
away and can break up marriages.
Impacts in these three areas interact, of
course. Health and financial problems put a
strain on relationships, and a breakdown in
relationships can aggravate health problems.
Regular exercise is important. Walking,
aerobics, jogging, swimming and cycling are
excellent. They build fitness, reduce bodily
tension and have a psychologically calming
effect. Some competitive sports can be good
too, though there can be tension due to the
competition itself.
Good diet is vital. This means eating regularly and in moderation, with plenty of fruit
and vegetables. Vitamin-rich and mineral-rich
foods are especially important; many people
take supplements as well. A wholesome diet
makes a big difference in helping resist stress.
This is standard advice, but it can be hard to
follow when under intense pressures. There
can be a temptation to overeat or to skip meals
(depending on the person) and to eat the
wrong sorts of foods.
The same applies to drugs. Smoking, alcohol and other drugs may give short-term relief
but they can aggravate physical problems and
cover up psychological problems.
It can be extremely difficult to change
habits, especially in a stressful situation.
Willpower is often inadequate. Late at night,
after hours spent preparing a submission, it is
far more tempting to reach for a smoke or a
chocolate than for a carrot stick.
There are several ways to try to overcome
this sort of behaviour. One is to ask a family
member, friend or co-worker to help. If the
rest of the family is eating a wholesome meal,
it is easy to join in. If a friend comes by every
day to join you for a walk or a swim, it is
easier to keep up the habit.
A second way is to design your environment so that bad habits are harder to follow. If
Maintaining good health
The impacts of stress are to some extent
unavoidable. If you catch the flu, then it will
run its course. But there are ways to reduce
the worst consequences.
The whistleblower’s handbook
there are no cigarettes in the house, it’s easier
to resist the urge for a smoke. If there are tasty
fresh fruits always available but no rich cakes,
then snacking on the fruit becomes easier.
A third way is to establish a routine to deal
with stressful events or times. You might write
down a list of “things to do” whenever feeling
severely stressed. For example: “(1) take 10
deep, slow breaths; (2) walk around the block;
(3) write down exactly what it is that is
making me feel stressed; (4) tell myself that I
will succeed in making a difference.” Pin this
list on the wall or put it in your pocket, and
then use it. Experiment to find what works for
Another important part of maintaining good
health is to get plenty of rest. This can be
difficult. Insomnia is a common reaction to
stress. It is possible to spend half the night
awake worrying about what action you should
take or what’s going to happen next. There are
several things that help cope with insomnia.
Regular exercise and good diet help. Overuse of
cigarettes, alcohol and most other drugs don’t.
Sleeping pills can help in the short term but
over a longer period are undesirable. It is wise
to go to bed about the same time every night
and, even more importantly, to get up the
same time. If you can’t sleep, then get up and
do something unrelated to what is worrying
you, such as read a novel, listen to the radio or
do a craft. Lack of sleep on its own is not
damaging, and most tasks can be carried out
with full competence by sleep-deprived
It may seem unfair to have to watch your
diet and avoid overindulgence. Why should
you? Think of it as being in training. A top
swimmer has to put in lots of hours in the
pool, eat suitably and get sufficient rest. A
whistleblower, in order to succeed against
enormous pressures, also needs to put in the
required hours of preparation and to make sure
their body can withstand the stress.
Just as important as physical fitness is
psychological fitness. This is not just a matter
of remaining sane but of keeping a balanced,
fresh perspective on the world. This is vital to
be able to build support and to formulate and
pursue a sensible strategy.
Retaining a sense of perspective in the face
of harassment and other pressures is a challenge. If your body is reacting, with insomnia,
headaches or worse, this adds to the challenge.
Some pressures are external, and it may not
be possible to avoid them. Other pressures are
self-imposed, for example spending long hours
preparing a submission. Try to moderate the
self-imposed pressures. Plan ahead to avoid
last-minute demands. Ask for extensions to
deadlines. Take regular breaks in work sessions. If you are a perfectionist, ask a friend to
help you decide when things are polished
It can help to learn skills in mental relaxation. You could try meditation, learning from a
book or a teacher, or something like tai chi,
with both physical and mental aspects.
Many people think that emotions just
happen and that there is nothing we can do
about them. Actually, emotions can be controlled to a considerable extent. You can decide
what you want to feel and set about achieving
it. Rather than responding to attacks with fear
and anger, you can decide that you’re going to
try to feel filled with confidence, resolve,
dignity — even compassion.
One of the ways to do this is through “selftalk.” Athletes do this to build up their selfconfidence and create a deep belief that they
can win against the odds. When you are in a
secure situation, perhaps just after waking up
or before going to sleep, you recite to yourself
affirmations such as “I am a worthy person. I
will persist with confidence and good
humour.” If you’re a visual person, using
appropriate imagery might work better.
What’s happening here is that you control
your thoughts and this in turn helps shape
your emotions. There are limits, though. If a
friend of yours dies, it is natural to feel grief.
But it is also natural for that grief to decline in
intensity over a period of time. If it persists,
then it is time to use self-talk to change your
Surviving; whistleblower groups
emotional state. Similarly, an incident of serious harassment can be expected to lead to
strong feelings, such as anger, fear or depression, depending on the person and the circumstances. Through self-talk, these negative
emotions can be minimised.
A second limit on shaping your emotions is
habit. After a lifetime of feeling excessive
resentment or distress at certain types of
situations, it is not easy to change. Don’t
expect a sudden personality transformation.
Just keep working at it.
When under stress, just talking with a
sympathetic person can do wonders. It can be
a serious mistake to bottle up feelings. The
more serious the situation, the more important
it is to talk. It can be with a friend or a trained
counsellor — someone you trust and who is
helpful. If selecting a therapist, try to obtain
advice, for example a recommendation from
someone who has been in a similar situation.
If, for some reason, you are unable to talk
about your situation with anyone, you can talk
to yourself. Just say out loud what you’d say
if someone were there. An alternative is to
write it down. A diary can be immensely
therapeutic. Speaking and writing help to get
things “out of your system.”
Surviving financially
A few dissidents don’t have to worry about
money. They may have large savings or a
partner with a secure job. But for the majority,
financial survival is a crucial issue. A primary
factor that keeps most people from speaking
up about problems is fear of loss of income.
On top of this, fighting a case through the
courts and some other channels can be incredibly expensive.
The keys to surviving financially are to:
• make a complete and honest assessment of
one’s situation;
• work on a minimum weekly budget;
• prepare for the worst outcome;
• act now rather than later.
It can be difficult to make a complete and
honest assessment of one’s finances. Some
people don’t know what they are spending.
Keeping a detailed budget over a month or
more can be helpful. Perhaps there are lots of
expenses for the mortgage, the car, eating out,
medical treatment, buying clothes or sending
the children to a private school. The key is to
be aware of them.
Next, prepare for the worst outcome. If you
are being seriously threatened with dismissal,
then prepare for dismissal and a period
without work. If you are pursuing a legal case,
it may take twice as long as the lawyer
predicts and cost twice as much. If you win,
the other side may appeal. The worst case is
that you lose. Take this into account when, for
example, considering whether to ask to borrow
money from relatives.
If you lose your job, you need to cut
expenses immediately. It’s tempting to keep
up the same lifestyle in the hope that you’ll
get your job back in an appeal or get a new
one. This is risky and can make things far
worse later on. It may be wise to move to
cheaper lodging, sell or do without certain
luxury items, or to change to less expensive
habits or hobbies.
Cutting expenses may seem like giving up.
Indeed, in a few situations, maintaining
appearances can be important to winning a
case. But usually the cost of your clothes and
the newness of your car are far less important
than your ability to survive and keep fighting
the case. You are much more likely to survive
if you are living within your finances and
prepared for the worst outcome. Otherwise
you may have to give up in the middle of the
struggle due to finances.
If you win a big settlement or get your job
back, it’s time to celebrate. But don’t assume
money problems are over. If you can’t get a
job or are dismissed again, your bank balance
could dwindle to nothing before you know it.
Prudent financial planning is essential to give
you long-term security.
The whistleblower’s handbook
Maintaining relationships
Winning a case can become an all-consuming
struggle, taking up every waking minute and
every thought. Since you’re struggling for your
beliefs and your life, it’s natural to become
single-minded. Since you talk only about your
case, your relatives, friends and co-workers
will start to think that you’re obsessed.
They’re right!
There are two important reasons why
maintaining relationships should be a priority.
First, personal relationships are important in
themselves. For most people, they are an
essential part of a life worth living. Is your
case so very important that it’s worth alienating those who are closest to you?
Struggles are often far more intense and
long-lasting than ever imagined at the beginning. A friend who starts off making a temporary sacrifice may eventually find that it
becomes too much. Rekindling friendships
may not be so easy. Of course, the struggle
may help you decide who your “real” friends
are. But do you want the struggle to define all
your relationships?
The second important reason why maintaining relationships should be a priority is
that it can help you succeed in your struggle.
Your family, friends and co-workers are
potential allies. They can give you direct help
and moral support. It’s far better to win them
over than to turn them off.
Your case may be the most important thing
in your life but it won’t be for most other
people. A few may join you in your passion
but many others will prefer you to be the way
you used to be.
• Spend time with those you care about the
most. If you are spending lots of time on a
case, you won’t be able to do all the socialising
you used to do. Time with those closest to
you should be a priority.
• Focus on the other person. Listen to their
concerns and perspectives. If the other person
has heard a lot from you about the case, one
useful technique is not to raise it unless they
ask. Then, be brief and let them ask for more
information if they want to. For casual
acquaintances, use only the briefest of summaries. If they want to know more, let them ask.
If you have a write-up, that can replace a
lengthy repeat of the story.
There are several advantages to saying less
rather than more. You are better able to
maintain relationships and avoid alienating
people. You create a better image as a sensible,
balanced person, and this can help you succeed
in the struggle. You can get a better sense of
how other people perceive and react if you
listen rather than talk. Understanding other
people’s perspectives is very helpful in
making your own message more effective and
keeping your case in context.
A strategy for psychological survival
Anyone who suffers abuse, whether due to
whistleblowing or some other reason, can
benefit from the book Work Abuse by Judith
Wyatt and Chauncey Hare. This is a comprehensive guide to surviving harassment, scapegoating, humiliation and undermining. It is by
far the most helpful manual that I’ve come
across. It is directed at middle and lower-level
workers who would like to change things but
have no support from, or are actively sabotaged by, their superiors.
The authors have years of experience in
counselling work abuse victims. They are
blunt in stating that most workplaces are
abusive and that there’s no easy way to
change them. Therefore, they argue, the
individual who is a target of abuse needs to
develop personal skills to understand the
situation, change their emotional response and
rehearse new behaviours.
Their underlying premise is that in order to
survive, change the situation or leave successfully, one has to change oneself. Although this
will not be welcomed by those who seek to
confront and expose management, the
approach nevertheless has useful insights for
organisational activists, especially in understanding what may be happening to others and
learning how to support them.
Surviving; whistleblower groups
The authors rely on the concept of shame
as the driving force behind organisational
dynamics. People are shamed (humiliated) in
various ways, for example by being exposed or
criticised for doing an inadequate job, by
having suggestions ignored or laughed at, by
being revealed as too emotional or caring, and a
host of other ways.
To develop a method of coping with the
dynamics of shame in organisations, the
authors examine the psychology of both
individuals and groups. They develop the
ideas of “cims” (childhood individual maintenance strategies) that shape individual
psychology and of “norms” (native organisational maintenance strategies) that shape group
dynamics. Both cims and norms are unconscious, and their interaction affects how
individuals cope.
Wyatt and Hare’s basic strategy for
workers is to learn how to analyse people and
the organisation (cims and norms) and to
develop the capacity to not be affected by
shaming, but instead to psychologically
distance oneself. In other words, rather than
being caught up in toxic behaviours at work,
they believe it is possible to emotionally
separate oneself, maintaining integrity internally and helping to survive and promote
beneficial change. They are quite clear about
how difficult it is to get others to change,
especially managers, who have a stake in their
power and who are threatened by those who
demonstrate competence (not to mention
those who mount a direct challenge).
They elaborate two major methods for
survival: “empowered awareness” and “strategic utilisation.” Empowered awareness is
basically becoming conscious of what is
happening, including all the abuse, rather than
denying it. It is a process of developing the
skills for building one’s own inner psychological world. It involves observing your own
feelings, evaluating other people’s character
styles and observing the organisation’s norms
and power structure. It includes generating
meaning and purpose in one’s own life, coping
with shaming by others, avoiding self-shaming
and avoiding futile power struggles.
Strategic utilisation involves setting goals,
planning and preparation, evaluating alternatives and taking action. One important part of
this is working out one’s own self-interests
and also the self-interests of others, and then
aligning one’s self-interests with those of
others, especially superiors, in order to
achieve one’s own goals while not threatening
The authors give some lengthy examples,
showing how shaming, abuse and their
recommended strategies operate. Their
analysis is based largely on experience with
US workplaces, but most of it would apply
readily elsewhere.
Work Abuse is a long book. It is not something to read in a day or even a week. It does
not provide a quick fix to urgent problems.
Rather, it is best studied slowly and thoughtfully. The process of changing one’s own
habitual ways of responding to abuse is not
easy. The authors recommend finding either a
therapist or a friend to help, especially in
recovering from a crisis. But most important is
being willing to undertake the process of
change and putting in the effort to do so.
The book is a bargain if it gives even a
chance of avoiding work abuse, which can
cause suffering for years, not to mention
substantial financial losses.
To a considerable extent, the reader must
take what the authors say on trust. There is no
detailed justification for the analysis (such as
their assumption that shame is the key driving
force in abuse), nor any statistics on the
effectiveness of their methods compared to
other techniques. Their case rests primarily on
how well their explanation fits with readers’
own experiences and understandings. In other
words, you need to ask, does what they say
ring true? To me it does!
In several places their observations mesh
with views of those familiar with whistleblowing. For example, they say you shouldn’t
expect justice from top management. In fact,
The whistleblower’s handbook
they say, “Justice is a myth, a story; expecting it to happen within a negative-norm
workplace is always self-destructive.”
The authors’ focus is on surviving personally and developing strategies to move ahead.
In most cases, blowing the whistle leads only
to grief for the whistleblower and no change in
the organisation; the authors argue against any
such self-destructive path. However, they
don’t say what to do about large-scale corruption or dangers to the public. Just ignoring it in
order to survive hardly seems enough. Their
approach has value, I believe, even for those
who decide to tackle such problems.
Whistleblower groups
A whistleblower group can both support individuals and help tackle social problems. Options
include networks, support groups and action groups.
One of the most useful things for any person
with a special problem is to talk with others
who have similar experiences. This is true of
men with prostate cancer, children of alcoholics — and whistleblowers. Meetings of whistleblowers are remarkably helpful. For
newcomers, it is often the first time they have
talked with anyone who really understands
what they’ve been going through. The relief
and reassurance this provides to someone who
has been under constant attack is hard to
So, just contact some local whistleblowers,
call a meeting and away you go! That can be all
it takes. But things are seldom this simple.
Here I will outline some factors to consider
in organising to support whistleblowers. This
draws heavily on my experience with Whistleblowers Australia but includes insights from
other groups.
Getting started
In any city of 100,000 or people, there are
probably dozens of people with whistleblowing experience and many with current cases.
As well, there will be others who are sympathetic or concerned, such as free speech
campaigners. Finding out who these people are
may not be so easy. One way is to ask
prominent whistleblowers, whether local or
from other cities. People who have received
media coverage are often contacted by others
with similar experiences. Another way is to
search through newspapers or ask journalists.
Over a year, it wouldn’t be surprising if
several cases were reported. Finally, there is
publicity. An advertisement or, far better, an
article or news story about whistleblowing is
an excellent way to encourage people to
contact you.
Sometimes, though, there are plenty of
people known to be willing to attend a
meeting, but no one is willing to do the work.
Calling a meeting is not a big operation. Find a
venue — a person’s home, or a room in a
library, church or school — select a date and
time, and send out notices. But someone has to
do the organising, and only a minority of
people will take the initiative and associated
responsibility. Action groups and support
groups depend on these organisers. Many
groups never start because there is no such
person. Others depend on one person, without
whom the group would collapse. For a group
Surviving; whistleblower groups
to have resilience, there should be several
people who will take responsibility. That’s
the best situation.
From now on, I’m assuming that there is at
least one organiser. The next question is, what
should be done? There are a number of
possibilities, each with advantages and disadvantages.
A network is essentially a set of actual or
potential links between people. One example
is Dissent Network Australia (DNA), which is
basically just a list of 30 or so people. Each
person provides contact information, their
areas of knowledge and experience, and what
they are potentially willing to do to help dissidents, such as provide advice, write letters,
talk to the media or photocopy materials. The
list is then sent to everyone on the list plus
anyone else who might be interested. After
that, it all depends on someone’s initiative. If
someone contacts me asking for advice or help,
I can give them a copy of the list so they can
consult others if they wish. A journalist can
use the list to find people willing to speak on
particular topics. Someone on the list might
send articles to everyone else on the list.
When you think about it, it’s obvious that
every organisation has one or more associated
networks. Employees know each other, or at
least some of them know each other. They
may just meet at the job, or they may ring each
other at home, go to parties, etc. The same
applies to church members, club members and
students, among others.
In all these cases, there is an organisation
and a network. DNA, in contrast, is a network
without an organisation. There are no
meetings, no money, no constitution, no office
bearers. There’s just the list, and everything
else is at someone’s initiative. The one
exception is that one or two people need to
take responsibility for producing, updating and
mailing out the list. As in most voluntary
activities, organisers are vital.
Being on such a list might seem like a big
responsibility, but actually it doesn’t lead to
much work (and no one is obliged to help,
anyway). Most people on the DNA list would
be contacted no more than once or twice in a
year. There are several reasons for this.
First, a large number of contacts occur
through personal referral. When someone who
knows me asks for advice, I often suggest that
they contact certain other people (who might
be on the DNA list!). Second, people are more
likely to contact someone in a position of
power or status. Many more people contacted
me after I became president of Whistleblowers
Australia, even though my knowledge and
skills were not much different than before.
(After being in such a position for a while,
though, one gains knowledge and skills because
of all the information that pours in.) Third,
people are more likely to contact someone
who has a presence on the issue. This is often
through the media. If you are mentioned in a
newspaper or give a talk on radio, people with
similar concerns may be inspired to contact
A network is more than names on a piece of
paper. It is a process, a set of active relationships. If a network is active, it usually means
that its members are engaged with the issues as
well as with each other.
The example of DNA is useful because it
shows that there can be a network without an
organisation. People who are involved in
organisations often begin to think that the
organisational aspects — meetings, regulations,
policies — are central, and forget about the
network aspects. In reality, networks are one
of the most important things about organisations.
Individual support
If someone rings up with a problem, you may
be able to offer information, support and
advice. Individual support is one of the most
vital parts of helping whistleblowers and
promoting dissent. It doesn’t require great
knowledge, but rather a sensitivity to a person
The whistleblower’s handbook
and their concerns. There are a few things that
are often helpful.
1. Listen. Often a person with a problem
just needs someone to listen without judging
them. They may be able to work out a solution
themselves without any advice. There can be a
great temptation to jump in and tell a person
what they should be doing. That may be
counterproductive. People need to reach their
own decisions. What can help, sometimes, is
suggestions of options or implications — but
not a long lecture. Listen…listen.
2. Contacts. You may be able to suggest
people who can help or who have had similar
experiences. Maybe there is an organisation or
a meeting. A lot of support is helping a person
make the right contacts. (Back to the networks.)
3. Information. You may have leaflets,
articles or other materials that can help. (See
Nearly everyone has much to offer in giving
individual support, if they want to. If you
want to improve your listening skills, observe
others who are good at this, for example at
meetings. Ask for feedback from people you
talk to. Try some role plays in “active listening.” For improving knowledge of contacts,
talk to people yourself, ask people for their
recommendations, attend meetings and get
advice from good networkers. For improving
knowledge of information sources, read things
yourself and ask others what was most helpful
to them.
Information materials
Talking to people is fine but it takes time and
can become repetitive. Giving someone a
leaflet or article that addresses their particular
situation can be extremely helpful. To provide
support effectively, it’s valuable to have a
collection of materials. Then the most relevant
ones can be given or posted to a person
seeking advice.
Short treatments are often most helpful to
begin with. Leaflets are good and so are copies
of newspaper or other articles. Books and
lengthy reports can be helpful for those who
have a deeper interest.
What should the materials be about?
• Information about the topic, whether it is
ethics in the workplace, corruption, what
happens to whistleblowers, or methods of
• Contacts: names, addresses, phone
• Where to get more information: organisations, web sites, references to articles and
For some people, getting a packet of information materials is the main help they’ll
receive. They may be isolated geographically
or socially, or they may be in a risky position
and nervous about speaking too widely about
their case. Information kits should be designed
and chosen to help people to become as selfreliant as possible.
Support groups and action groups
Whistleblowers can form support groups or
action groups — both of which are described
in chapter 7 — or groups that are combinations of both. Support groups probably offer
the best chance of giving whistleblowers more
confidence and support without the aggravation of formal procedures and business. They
aren’t necessarily easy to run, and sometimes
they are filled with tension and anguish —
many whistleblowers need a lot of support —
but it’s worth the effort.
Whistleblower action groups can use a
variety of methods, including lobbying politicians, producing newsletters and reports,
carrying out investigations, making informed
public statements, writing letters, organising
meetings or promoting civil disobedience.
They can have various goals, such as promoting whistleblower legislation, changing laws or
policies that constrain free speech of employees, opposing the use of defamation law
against free speech, exposing corruption and
injustice in specific areas (police, banks,
building industry, etc.), opposing censorship
or promoting alternatives to mainstream media.
Surviving; whistleblower groups
Here I’ll just give a few brief comments about
some key issues facing whistleblower and
related groups.
Action versus support. In many groups
there is a mixture of functions, including both
action and support. Getting the balance right is
hard. Some people are coming to get things
done — action. They are oriented to tasks.
Others are seeking support. They are primarily concerned about maintaining relationships.
Support or maintenance is always involved,
at some level. If support functions are neglected, personal tensions can tear a group
apart. On the other hand, if support becomes
the primary focus, nothing gets done. Sometimes it can help to separate these functions,
for example to having personal sharing at the
beginning of a meeting, or by having separate
support and general business meetings.
Advocacy. Should the group take up an
individual member’s personal case, and thus
become involved in advocacy? Or should it
stick to support, education, publicity, lobbying and/or direct action?
Some individual cases are very worthy.
Such cases can provide leverage for wider
change, and associated publicity can further
the cause. The disadvantage is that advocacy is
inevitably selective. Due to shortage of
resources, only some cases can be supported.
That means not supporting others. If people
expect to find advocates, most will be
disappointed. If they expect to obtain a
sympathetic ear, some information and a few
contacts, there’s a better chance of meeting
their expectations.
Openness. Should the group be open to all
comers? Or should it be restricted to those
who satisfy certain criteria?
If a whistleblower group is restricted to
those who are “genuine” whistleblowers, what
is to be done about someone who has spent
time in prison and claims he was framed
because he spoke out? Someone has to judge
each claim, and this can be contentious. Some
who aren’t whistleblowers will slip through
the net and some who are genuine may be put
off by the process of scrutiny. On the other
hand, all sorts of people can attend an open
group, and this may include a few disruptive
ones who are given no credence by anyone
Jean Lennane comments
Whistleblowers are normally very conscientious and often somewhat obsessive people,
who by definition won’t shut up and go away.
When they first come to a whistleblower
group, they are also almost always totally
preoccupied with the importance and injustice
of their own case. This can make it difficult to
run a group. Be aware and be prepared!
Becoming able to step back from one’s own
case to see the bigger picture is vital in the
healing process and makes people far more
effective in tackling the system. Once there is a
core of whistleblowers who have reached this
stage, a group becomes much more productive
as well as far easier to run.
Hierarchy. The traditional bureaucratic
model is based on hierarchy. People in positions at the top have the most power and issue
orders to subordinates. Voluntary groups like
churches also can operate bureaucratically,
even though those at the top have little or no
legal authority. An alternative model is of
equality, in which all members are equal in
formal status, with no office bearers. Often in
such groups there is an attempt to rotate tasks
and develop each person’s skills in different
The hierarchical model gives some advantages. Official office bearers have more status
and credibility with the media. If, as is usual,
they have lots of experience and skill, their
positions give them official sanction to make
key decisions and set policy. But there are
disadvantages. Hierarchy tends to breed power
struggles. Ambitious or status-conscious
people seek positions at the top not because
of what they have to offer but because they
want power and status. Others become resentful. This can result in spiteful battles, including
The whistleblower’s handbook
cliques, backstabbing, sabotage and alienation
of members.
Without official leaders, egalitarian groups
sometimes have a difficult time gaining a media
profile. On the other hand, they are often more
satisfying for members. However, power
struggles can occur even when there are no
formal positions of authority. In all groups
there are differences in experience, knowledge,
skills and relationships. Some people use these
to obtain advantages or personal rewards for
themselves, such as recognition or paid travel,
and others are resentful of those with talent.
There can some standard problems, such as
hoarding of information, rumours, formation of
factions, and attempts to gain power or
undermine others, that are common to virtually
all groups. Hierarchical groups, though, tend to
have these to a greater degree. There are a
number of ways to minimise concentration of
power in traditional organisations, including
limited terms for office bearers, postal ballots,
external mediators and random selection of
chairs for meetings.
There’s no single best way to promote the
cause of whistleblowing. Networks, individual
support, information materials, support
groups and action groups can all be valuable.
Each person can contribute in their own way.
It might be by offering support to a friend, by
joining an action group or by writing a letter or
submission. All sorts of different approaches
are needed, since no single approach is right for
everyone and every circumstance. We need to
help others find the best way they can
contribute, and to keep learning about how to
improve. The task is large but, as long as
people care, there is hope.
Whistleblowers Australia, most of whose
members are whistleblowers, has provided
personal support and advice to hundreds of
individuals, produced a variety of information
materials and waged campaigns on several
important topics (such as the right of workers
to make public interest disclosures without
reprisal). This activity has been an important
factor in creating a wider awareness in the
media and the community of the significance of
whistleblowing. Although Whistleblowers
Australia has had its share of internal strife, its
experience shows that whistleblower groups
can make a difference.
There are several ways to obtain written
material about whistleblowing, methods of
resisting malfunctioning organisations, or
indeed any topic.
• Read widely and look out for relevant
• Use a list of references.
• Use a catalogue or database.
• Ask someone who knows the field.
Doing lots of reading is an old-fashioned
way of finding material. It can mean looking
through newspapers, browsing through
magazines and consulting lots of books.
Although it is labour-intensive, this method
can pick up material that cannot be found in
any other way. Many reports of dissent and
resistance to it are tucked away in articles or
books about other topics.
Reference lists come in all sizes and varieties: short, long, specialised, general, idiosyncratic. If you can find an article or book on the
topic, it will often have footnotes or a bibliography giving further sources. Many lists just
give the references. An annotated bibliography, in contrast, gives some commentary as
well, as I do below. Any list is limited in some
respects and gets out of date, so you may
want to use the other methods as well.
There are lots of ways of searching for
references. Computer search tools are now
standard, whether for library catalogues,
databases of journal and magazine articles, and
the World Wide Web. The key to successful
searches is knowing what you are looking for
— including key words and their relationship
to the field — and knowing how to use the
search tool. For the latter, it is sensible to
consult a librarian or someone experienced in
using the tool.
A knowledgeable person can provide really
helpful advice, especially if they know
something about you and what you’re after —
an advantage that cannot be matched by any
list or catalogue. You just have to take into
account that everyone has their own likes and
The following list is a fairly short one. I
give what I think are the most important and
useful references on particular topics, plus
some of my own writings.
The Whistleblower’s Survival Guide:
Courage Without Martyrdom (Washington,
DC: Fund for Constitutional Government,
1997). A summary is available at Many
whistleblowers say that this is the most
practical manual available. It has lots of
information about US official channels which,
however, is of limited value to people
Jean Lennane, “What happens to whistleblowers, and why,” in Klaas Woldring (ed.),
Business Ethics in Australia and New Zealand:
Essays and C a s e s (Melbourne: Thomas
Nelson, 1996), pp. 51-63. A valuable
summary of insights.
There are many web sites giving material on
whistleblowing and related topics. Two places
to start are:
sent/. This is my own site, with many
documents, contacts and links to some other
sites. This is
the Government Accountability Project site,
which has many links to related sites.
There are many studies of whistleblowing.
One of the best, from the point of view of the
whistleblower, is:
Myron Peretz Glazer and Penina Migdal
Glazer, The Whistleblowers: Exposing
Corruption in Government and Industry (New
York: Basic Books, 1989). It gives a vivid
picture of whistleblowers’ commitment and
The whistleblower’s handbook
courage and the terrible reprisals visited on
Others include:
William De Maria, Deadly Disclosures
(Adelaide: Wakefield Press, 1999).
Quentin Dempster, Whistleblowers
(Sydney: ABC Books, 1997).
Frederick Elliston, John Keenan, Paula
Lockhart and Jane van Schaick, Whistleblowing: Managing Dissent in the Workplace (New
York: Praeger, 1985).
David W. Ewing, Freedom Inside the
Organization: Bringing Civil Liberties to the
Workplace (New York: Dutton, 1977).
Geoffrey Hunt (ed.), Whistleblowing in the
Health Service: Accountability, Law and
Professional Practice (London: Edward
Arnold, 1995).
Geoffrey Hunt (ed.), Whistleblowing in the
Social Services: Public Accountability and
Professional Practice (London: Arnold, 1998).
Nicholas Lampert, Whistleblowing in the
Soviet Union: Complaints and Abuses under
State Socialism (London: Macmillan, 1985).
Marcia P. Miceli and Janet P. Near,
Blowing the Whistle: The Organizational and
Legal Implications for Companies and
Employees (New York: Lexington Books,
Greg Mitchell, Truth … and Consequences.
Seven Who Would Not Be Silenced (New York:
Dembner, 1981).
Ralph Nader, Peter J. Petkas and Kate
Blackwell (editors), Whistle Blowing: The
Report of the Conference on Professional
Responsibility (New York: Grossman, 1972).
Charles Peters and Taylor Branch, Blowing
the Whistle: Dissent in the Public Interest
(New York: Praeger, 1972).
Judith A. Truelson, “Blowing the whistle
on systematic corruption: on maximizing
reform and minimizing retaliation,” Corruption
and Reform, Vol. 2, 1987, pp. 55-74.
Gerald Vinten (ed.), Whistleblowing —
Subversion or Corporate Citizenship?
(London: Paul Chapman, 1994).
Alan F. Westin, with Henry I. Kurtz and
Albert Robbins (editors), Whistle Blowing!
Loyalty and Dissent in the Corporation (New
York: McGraw-Hill, 1981).
For understanding the nature of bureaucracy
as a power system and the implications for
whistleblowers, I think the most useful
perspective is Deena Weinstein, Bureaucratic
Opposition: Challenging Abuses at the
Workplace (New York: Pergamon, 1979).
On the use of the US legal system to attack
those who challenge vested interests, two
excellent treatments are:
Ralph Nader and Wesley J. Smith, N o
Contest: Corporate Lawyers and the
Perversion of Justice in America (New York:
Random House, 1996).
George W. Pring and Penelope Canan,
SLAPPs: Getting Sued for Speaking Out
(Philadelphia: Temple University Press,
On the health problems of whistleblowers
see K. Jean Lennane, “‘Whistleblowing’: a
health issue,” British Medical Journal, Vol.
307, 11 September 1993, pp. 667-670. On
dealing with psychological impacts, see Judith
Lewis Herman, Trauma and Recovery (US:
BasicBooks, 1992).
There is no single reference that gives a
comprehensive description of how and why
official channels fail so often. The following
are useful treatments that deal with aspects of
the problem.
William De Maria, “Whistleblowing,”
Alternative Law Journal, Vol. 20, No. 6,
December 1995, pp. 270-281, on whistleblower laws.
William De Maria and Cyrelle Jan, “Behold
the shut-eyed sentry! Whistleblower perspectives on government failure to correct
wrongdoing,” Crime, Law & Social Change,
Vol. 24, 1996, pp. 151-166.
Thomas M. Devine and Donald G. Aplin,
“Abuse of authority: the Office of the Special
Counsel and whistleblower protection,”
Antioch Law Journal, Vol. 4, No. 5, 1986,
pages 5-71.
Thomas M. Devine and Donald G. Aplin,
“Whistleblower protection — the gap between
the law and reality,” Howard Law Journal,
Vol. 31, 1988, pages 223-239.
For skills on analysing the situation,
developing a strategy and taking action, see:
Virginia Coover, Ellen Deacon, Charles
Esser and Christopher Moore, Resource
Manual for a Living Revolution (Philadelphia:
New Society Publishers, 1981).
Per Herngren, Path of Resistance: The
Practice of Civil Disobedience (Philadelphia:
New Society Publishers, 1993).
Diane MacEachern, Enough is Enough: The
Hellraiser’s Guide to Community Activism
(New York: Avon, 1994).
Randy Shaw, The Activist’s Handbook: A
Primer for the 1990s and Beyond (Berkeley:
University of California Press, 1996).
Katrina Shields, In the Tiger’s Mouth: An
Empowerment Guide for Social Action
(Sydney: Millenium Books, 1991).
On bullying:
Andrea Adams, Bullying at Work: How to
Confront and Overcome It (London: Virago,
Tim Field, Bully in Sight: How to Predict,
Resist, Challenge and Combat Workplace
Bullying (Wantage, Oxfordshire: Success
Unlimited, 1996).
Tim Field’s web site:
Paul McCarthy, Michael Sheehan and
William Wilkie (eds.), Bullying: From
Backyard to Boardroom (Sydney: Millenium
Books, 1996).
Peter Randall, Adult Bullying: Perpetrators
and Victims (London: Routledge, 1997).
On sexual harassment:
Cheryl Gomez-Preston with Randi
Reisfeld, When No Means No: A Guide to
Sexual Harassment by a Woman Who Won a
Million-Dollar Verdict (New York: Carol,
Martha J. Langelan, Back Off! How to
Confront and Stop Sexual Harassment and
Harassers (New York: Simon and Schuster
Celia Morris, Bearing Witness: Sexual
Harassment and Beyond — Everyone’s Story
(Boston: Little, Brown, 1994).
For dealing with verbal harassment, see the
superb books by Suzette Haden Elgin, The
Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense and similar
On surviving: Judith Wyatt and Chauncey
Hare, Work Abuse: How to Recognize and
Survive It (Rochester, VT: Schenkman, 1997).
See also: Kathryn D. Cramer, Staying on Top
When Your World Turns Upside Down (New
York: Penguin, 1990).

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