Queen's Policy Engagement

Whistleblowers and financial precarity: towards a policy that protects

Dr Kate Kenny looks at the valuable role played by 'whistleblowers' in our society and asks, despite admiration for them, why we don't seem to want to help those who continue to struggle for years after.

Whistleblowers and financial precarity: towards a policy that protects

The recent Francis Report into how poor care at Mid Staffordshire Foundation Trust was allowed to happen, was another lesson in just how valuable whistleblowers are to society. And yet as a society, we don’t seem to care that many struggle to survive.

Whistleblowers perform a vital role in today’s world. They alert the public to financial fraud, abuse in institutions and potential environmental disasters. The UK NHS for years ignored attempts by whistleblowers to raise concerns about care that was ‘substandard, and sometimes unsafe’, while we now know that the Deepwater Horizon disaster of 2010 could have been prevented had BP listened to just one of the many warnings coming from whistleblowers inside the company.

As well as preventing such societal disasters, whistleblowers can also save companies and organizations significant amounts of money. In recent years, they have alerted their companies to more serious economic crimes than were spotted by all the “official” fraud-spotters combined – the internal auditors, corporate security personnel and law enforcers, saving on average $3million per case. So these people prevent disasters and save money; what’s not to admire? In fact, 80% of people in the UK emulate this position and report that they too would speak out if they witnessed serious corruption in their organization.

While we may admire whistleblowers and celebrate their bravery, we don’t seem to want to help those who struggle for years. The message for many who are forced to go outside their organization is clear: you may never work in your industry again because of your disclosure, and there are zero financial supports available to help you.

How does this happen? We know that whistleblowers who go public tend to experience a subtle, informal kind of blacklisting in their industry.  Organizations tend not to want to hire well-known whistleblowers, and in the age of Google, it is easy to find out who these people are when a CV arrives on the desk of the Human Resources manager. This means that a whistleblower who goes public has a high chance of never being hired in their area of expertise again. In the UK, the careers of senior and successful doctors and nurses “were left on the scrapheap” after they attempted to let NHS managers know about dangerous practices, many of which risked patients’ lives. Well known examples from the financial services sector include Eileen Foster, award-winning whistleblower who disclosed mortgage fraud at Countrywide, now Bank of America and was the subject of a 60 minutes documentary that received great acclaim. Despite her stellar credentials, not one of her first 145 job applications received a response.  Martin Woods, whose disclosures to the Department of Justice lead to the biggest ever fine for facilitation of money-laundering to be levied against his ex-employer Wachovia, thought he had got lucky when he secured a job with a leading private bank.  As it turned out, the new firm didn’t yet know who he was. When they found out that he was “the whistleblower”, they terminated his contract immediately and fought off a court case.  As Woods’ experience demonstrates, the legislation that exists preventing potential employers for discriminating against whistleblowers at the recruitment stage, is often ineffective.

So these brave individuals are often left with no job, no income and a mounting pile of bills, including the legal and medical costs that typically accompany a lengthy and usually stressful whistleblowing campaign against a retaliatory organization. It doesn’t help that whistleblowers who disclose serious and systemic wrongdoing tend to be senior in their organizations, and often have families to support. The cost of speaking up, it seems, can be bankruptcy. Would four out of five Britons really speak up in the case of serious wrongdoing, if they knew the full extent of the sacrifice that might be required?

What can be done about this? Currently, there are no supports to speak of. There does exist legislation that grants whistleblowers some compensation if they can prove that they have been let go from their organization as a result of their disclosure. However not everyone is successful in taking a case, and it costs money to get the legal help needed to purse this.  To remedy the situation, whistleblower advocacy groups like Whistleblowers UK have proposed that a ‘whistleblower support fund’ be created, generated from the fines paid by organizations when they are penalized for wrongdoing, and administered by an independent ‘Office of the Whistleblower’. This is one solution.  The ‘bounty system’ in the U.S. by which successful whistleblowers receive a payout based on a percentage of the money that they have saved the US government by virtue of their disclosure, is another.  These scheme has been muted in Europe to much controversy.

Whatever one’s views, it is clear that something needs to be done.  First, we need to know more: about the full costs of whistleblowing for those who leave their organization, and about the kinds of interventions that might help to rehabilitate people’s careers if they find themselves in this situation. Once we have this knowledge, then we can begin to plan how we can help people who risk their lives and incomes for our sakes, to survive.

This  image has been used courtesy of a Creative Commons licence.

A version of this article appeared in The Conversation on 12 May 2015.

Dr Kate Kenny
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Dr Kate Kenny is a Reader in the Management School at Queen’s University Belfast. Dr Kenny’s research interests lie in whistleblowing, organisational culture, identity and power.

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