Whistleblowers' concern about retaliation not without justification, study shows
BLACKSBURG, March 7, 2002 -- Sherron Watkins was not without justification in her concern that she might suffer retaliation for exposing the accounting scandal at Enron, according to Joyce Rothschild, who has conducted the only national study of whistleblowers from all walks of life and from all parts of the United States.
Rothschild, professor of sociology at Virginia Tech, did an eight-year study, conducting indepth interviews with 300 whistleblowers and more than 200 surveys of silent observers (people who observed some wrongdoing but who chose to remain silent). She found that 69 percent were fired as a result of exposing wrongdoing, even when they only reported this wrongdoing to higher ups within their own employer's organization. Of those who left their organization to report misconduct to outside authorities, such as to legal authorities, Rothschild found that more than 80 percent were fired.
Rothschild, who has published five academic articles on her studies, found in many cases that the moment senior management realized that an individual might blow the whistle, "they began a race to discredit the would-be whistleblower before the whistleblower could discredit them." In the ensuing battle for vindication, and for their jobs, the whistleblowers seldom emerged unscathed. In 84 percent of her cases, former whistleblowers said they became depressed and could no longer trust the managers of organizations. In 53 percent of her cases the whistleblowers suffered deterioration even in their family relations.
Indeed, Rothschild said, statistical analysis of the data found that the larger and more systemic the observed misconduct reported by the whistleblower, the more swift and severe were the reprisals, and neither gender, nor race, nor age, nor any specific level of educational attainment nor years on the job could insulate such a whistleblower from retaliation.
"People ask what stirs people to take these personal risks," Rothschild said. Her studies found that 79 percent of her whistleblowers were stirred to action by their values. "Sometimes they said that they got their sense of right and wrong from the codes of professional ethics embedded in their various occupations; sometimes they attributed their moral compass to religious upbringing or family teaching; but in nearly all cases, they said they were trying to do ‘the right thing,'" Rothschild said. "Of the remaining ones, 16 percent said that their whistle blowing had been defensive: they were afraid that they would be blamed for the misconduct of others if they did not report it, and the other 5 percent said that they really weren't sure why they had spoken up."
Many organizational factors lay the groundwork for whistle blowing, Rothschild said. She found that "where the employee observes the same misconduct many times, not just once, and in the process, comes to view his or her employer as immoral and the senior managers as non-democratic and probably complicit in the wrongdoing, they are most likely to blow the whistle."
"We live in an information-driven economy where organizations can be amazingly complex and opaque, often by design," Rothschild said. "Under these circumstances, well-placed employees--people who see the questionable acts in the process of doing their jobs-- may be the only people who are in a position to know when the organization has gone awry--when one of its products will be defective, when it is placing a hazard in its workplace or in the environment, or when it is defrauding the government or the public.
"If we want these people to come forward and to speak with candor to their superiors in the organization, letting them know what they have observed before the organization loses customer confidence, gets hit with liability suits, or completely implodes in a public scandal, then we will need to shore up legislation that will better protect whistleblowers from the swift and almost certain retaliation they now face. Moreover," Rothschild said, "given the preponderance of organizations in my study whose first response was to get rid of the whistleblower and to suppress whatever critical information that may have carried, the evidence suggests strongly that organizations of all types have a long way to go in learning how to tolerate and even benefit from the dissenting views of conscientious whistleblowers, as these are often the early warning signs of trouble ahead."
Rothschild is working on a book tentatively called Whistleblower Disclosures: The Battle to Control Information about Organizational Corruption based on her long-time study. With Terry Miethe, she published a lengthy academic article in Work and Occupations in Feb. 1999 called "Whistle-Blower Disclosures and Management Retaliation.