Whistleblowing isn’t easy

Much has been in the news lately about people blowing whistles on allegations of corruption and abuse. Without discussing these specific situations, I want to address the act of sounding an alarm, or blowing a whistle. I have written something on this previously, but it warrants revisiting. I will start by saying that, if you haven’t been there, you may not comprehend this, but, I’ve been there. I’ve been a whistleblower. In fact, both Melissa and I have been there. And, taking a stand against what we saw as fraudulent acts by our then employer has had long term costs for our careers as well as our well being. Again, the point is not the specific situation, but rather, that the decision we made and others have made and are making is that one sometimes has to say, “this is wrong.” I’ve thought about this recently when reading the news of how high level people have spoken up and reported what they saw in various situations. And, I empathize with them in that I can imagine the personal pressures, stresses, and pain they are feeling. Just having read a Time Magazine article about some of this, I relived some of Melissa’s and my distress again. Ours does not come close to the level of pressures, the ridicule, the television cameras, notoriety, even death threats some whistleblowers have faced. But, in that they have willingly (mostly) subjected themselves to these pressures, they have credibility in my mind, because I know few people would subject themselves to such stressors without strong convictions.

To the uninitiated, whistle blower means the same thing as tattletale.  In fact, dictionary definitions of both terms list them as synonyms, along with others, such as betrayer, informant, nark, rat fink, and snitch.  In my view, there are different circumstances that lead to the characterization of people who “tell on” others.  For example, in my opinion, a tattletale is a person, often a child, who reports another person’s transgression in order to curry favor with an authority figure.  An informant is often someone who, in exchange for leniency for a crime, tells a law enforcement officer information about co-conspirators.  In contrast, in my opinion and based on my personal experience, a whistle blower is often someone who, despite tremendous personal costs, reports on someone whom he/she knows has committed a crime, unethical behavior, or other wrongdoing that, if left unreported, would harm someone else.  In the workplace example with which David and I are, unfortunately, familiar, we witnessed our (former) employer commit fraudulent acts that were harmful to our clients and which, if they were unreported, would have made us complicit in the wrongdoing.  In addition, as a psychologist who is a long time member of the American Psychological Association and thus, bound by its ethical principles, I have a duty to report unethical behavior on the part of another psychologist (such as my former employer).  When faced with the choice between looking the other way while fraud was being perpetuated on a frequent basis and risking being fired (which both David and I were), many people would choose to remain silent.  This is another painful example of judging another person without having stood in his/her shoes.  Anyone who believes it is easy to be a whistle blower when faced with corruption, fraud, and other criminal behavior has, in my view, no idea of what the experience is like.  Doing the right thing is often more difficult than doing the wrong thing or nothing at all.  But, speaking from experience, I have, and will continue to, do the right thing.       

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