In the last few months, as I walked in to work each day, I wondered if my desk had been cleared out. That would be it; the end of working for the company I loved and that I’d been trying to help by blowing the whistle.
The feelings of dread and anxiety weren’t just with me at work. The thousand-yard stare and trepidation came home, a distraction as I was playing games with my children, eating a meal or trying to get to sleep. On an emotional level, it was like a prolonged, self-inflicted bereavement. It didn’t just affect me, either; though I tried to hide it, I know those around me felt it too.
I eventually took my concerns externally to the regulator, knowing I had done everything expected of me. I felt a sense of relief, thinking that help would come. However, whilst I’d anticipated how people would react within the company I worked for, over time I came to realise that raising concerns had its problems on the outside, too. I spent quite a bit of time reading and researching, to understand why that was.
I believe it was Edward Snowden who said that whistleblowing doesn’t work because you have to raise concerns to the people most directly responsible for the wrongdoing. In some cases, he’ll be right, but if you’re not talking to the people at the top of the chain, you’re also asking them to become the whistleblower themselves and escalate it further, if the issue you’re raising is beyond their control to resolve. And I didn’t like what he said, because society can’t settle for that. There has to be hope for a system that works.
Since raising concerns, I’ve seen the consequences for others who’ve done it. In some, their bodies are wracked with loneliness, difficulty and the hard-earned understanding of human nature they might wish they didn’t have. We start to learn the ethics of raising concerns at a young age – “tell the teacher”, for example. In the working world, it rightly becomes a responsibility.
But what preparation is there for being called a traitor? What do the teachers know of keeping friends at a distance, to protect them? How does the theory account for the promotion and advancement of the perpetrators?
As it turned out, a GCSE biology textbook and Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene had the answers. I reached the conclusion that it was a natural human reaction to suppress whistleblowing, or to find excuses not to act on relevant information. It was easier for people; a defence mechanism; survival of the fittest; self-preservation and self-interest. Some would do it consciously and others subconsciously, finding excuses for themselves which wouldn’t stand up to scrutiny, but probably gave them peace of mind if they didn’t think about it too much.
It also turns out that I wasn’t alone in having a tough time. Studies have found that many whistleblowers face workplace consequences such as losing their jobs, forced retirement, demotion and harassment. The experience can also lead to adverse effects on their health such as depression, weight changes, drug use and even attempted suicide. Perhaps even more chilling is that their spouses or children may report such adverse health effects too, again including suicide attempts. I was fortunate enough not to experience the worst of the effects, but I certainly gained a first-hand understanding of the impact it has, and why.
Snowden was right about one thing: often, whistleblowing doesn’t work. At least not at the moment. And I think there are two solutions, both of which are essential if things are going to change.
Greg has kindly written a follow-up article on the benefits of whistleblowing. Click here to read it.