We need to protect the whistleblowers who save our skins but pay the price

Approach with caution. Holly Occhipinti, CC BY

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. For years, the NHS 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.

Delivering a clearer picture. NHS whistleblowers. Benjamin Ellis, CC BY-NC

As well as preventing damaging incidents like these, whistleblowers can also save companies and organisations some serious cash. In recent years, private sector whistleblowers have alerted their bosses 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 $3m per case.

So these people prevent disasters and save money; what’s not to admire? In fact, 80% of people in the UK report that they would speak out if they witnessed serious corruption in their organisation.

Safety net?

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 organisation is clear: you may never work in your industry again because of your disclosure, and there is zero financial support 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. Organisations 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 re-hired in their area of expertise.

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.

Eileen Foster, receives the 2012 Ridenhour Prize for Truth-Telling. Ridenhour Prizes, CC BY

Martin Woods’ disclosures to the U.S. Department of Justice led to the biggest ever action to be brought under the US Bank Secrecy Act against his ex-employer Wachovia for its facilitation of money-laundering. He thought he had got lucky when he secured a new job with a leading UK private bank. As it turned out, the new firm didn’t yet know who he was. When they found out that he was a whistleblower, they withdrew their offer immediately and fought off a court case. As Woods’ experience demonstrates, the legislation that exists to prevent potential employers from discriminating against whistleblowers at the recruitment stage, is often ineffective.

Paying a price

So these brave individuals are often left with no job, no income and a mounting pile of bills, including for legal and medical costs that typically accompany a lengthy and usually stressful whistleblowing campaign against a retaliatory organisation. It doesn’t help that whistleblowers who disclose serious and systemic wrongdoing tend to be in senior positions, and often have families to support. The cost of disclosing, 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? The situation is dangerous; we can assume that this fact is currently discouraging the many would-be whistleblowers who have taken the time to consider the likely outcomes for themselves and their families.

What can be done about this? Legislation exists that grants whistleblowers some compensation if they can prove that they have been let go from their organisation as a result of their disclosures. However not everyone is successful in bringing a case, and it costs money to get the legal help needed to pursue this.

To remedy the situation, advocacy groups like Whistleblowers UK have proposed that a support fund be created, generated from the fines paid by organisations when they are penalised for wrongdoing, and administered by an independent “Office of the Whistleblower”. This is one solution. The bounty system in the US, by which successful whistleblowers receive a payout based on a percentage of the money that their disclosure has saved the US government, is another. Similar schemes have been mooted in Europe, to some controversy.

Whatever your view, it is clear that something needs to change. First, we need to know more: about the full costs of whistleblowing for those who leave their organisation, 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 to survive, after they have risked their lives and incomes for our sakes.