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I love whistleblowers

August 7, 2012

There’s something people don’t like about whistleblowers. I really don’t get it, but I know it’s true (I’m looking at you, Obama).

In particular, I hear all the time that you’re giving up on your career if you’re a whistleblower, that nobody would ever want to hire you again. But if I’m running a company, which I presumably want have run well, without corruption, and be successful, then I’m totally fine with whistleblowers! They will tell me truth and expose fraud. To say out loud that I don’t want to hire someone like that is basically admitting I’m okay with fraud, no?

I’m really missing something, and if you have an explanation I’d love to hear it.

In the meantime, though, I’ll say this: the web is great for anonymous whistleblowing (if anyone pays attention and follows up). Science Fraud is a great one that tells about scientific publishing fraud in the life sciences - see the “About” page of Science Fraud for more color. See also Retraction Watch for a broader look.

But then there’s another issue, which is that some people won’t seriously consider whistleblowers unless they identify themselves! What up? Facts are facts – if someone has given good evidence that can be checked independently, why should also submit themselves to being blacklisted for their efforts?

Here’s a good response to this crappy line of reasoning against anonymous whistleblowing by the Retraction Watch guys Ivan Oransky and Adam Marcus.

Categories: news, open source tools, rant
  1. August 7, 2012 at 8:16 am

    Cathy, sometimes it is not easy to see if something is true or fraud or fact.
    This is so with regard to people, and even with regard to history.

    As an example, I invite you to ask your readers how old acupuncture is.

  2. August 7, 2012 at 8:19 am

    Sure, but not my point. I agree that if you don’t have excellent evidence of fraud then you may not be taken seriously, but I’m not sure why it matters if you are anonymous.

  3. Recovering Banker
    August 7, 2012 at 8:44 am

    1) I think the dislike is a very visceral and tribal emotion- you think your tribe is protecting you, then it turns out a member is threatening you. What if the whistleblowers go to the cops, and as a result your company is ruined?
    Separately, you need to consider the costs of dealing with accusations. For example, what were the costs to the Climategate scientists?

    • SagittariusA
      August 7, 2012 at 3:20 pm

      I agree with this and wrote something similar further down.

      I think group norms and group protection play a huge role in business. Everywhere I’ve worked it’s all about teamwork and working hard for your group and rooting and cheering for it and protecting it all costs. Wear the company’s pin on your suit and all.

      Whistleblowers might be perceived, perhaps wrongly, of being too little concerned with protecting their groups. Yes, the whistleblower might have only exposed the group because it was doing something criminal, but deep inside people just might not trust others who have shown any kind of willingness at all to sacrifice the tribe.

    • August 7, 2012 at 11:06 pm

      RB nails it. Virtually everyone has had whistleblowing opportunities involving serious moral, ethical and/or legal offenses. At least 99% of the time, people decline these opportunities if there is any threat to their friendships, relationships between friends or the viability of their organizations / livelihoods. If whistleblowing requires violating a confidence, even fewer will risk being ostracized.

      A few years ago, somebody posted a video of Micheal Phelps hitting a bong that made national news. My first thoughts:

      a) what an absolute violation of trust among friends
      b) the whistleblower who posted the video shouldn’t be trusted, he’s not the kind of person I’d want as a friend or in my organization.
      c) it must be difficult for celebrities to find trustworthy friends.

      While some are good at confronting bad individual behavior It takes a very special personality to blow the whistle on organizational offenses. A few will resign from such organizations but most will go along to get along. Meaningful checks on power within organizations can reduce bad behavior.

  4. Jon
    August 7, 2012 at 9:27 am

    1) Being able to identify the whistleblower means that you shoulder less risk if you decide to rely on his/her information. As an anonymous whistleblower, I could spew total nonsense, or worse, purposely seek to undermine my competition, with no downside. If I identify myself, then my credibility is on the line, and I won’t be taken seriously if it’s my competition’s dirty laundry that I’m airing.

    2) I think people avoid hiring whistleblowers because, again, you don’t always know whether the whistleblower’s information is true, or whether they just have an overactive imagination, or if they just deal with their problems by creating scandals involving those around them. Moreover, whistleblowers, if you’ve successfully identified them as such, are necessarily very public in their whistleblowing (otherwise you wouldn’t know about them) and then you run the risk of them airing your company’s dirty laundry all over the place. In that way, the reduced corruption might be more than offset by the blow to your company’s reputation.

    Now I happen to agree with you overall that the benefits outweigh the risks here, and that in most cases it’s probably worth investigating yourself and figuring if the person is just a sociopath or they’re really full of integrity (or both). But I think that’s the other side of the argument.

  5. August 7, 2012 at 10:11 am

    My favorite whistleblowers are Wendell Potter, former mouthpiece for Cigna who became a health-system-reform activist, and Paul Campos, a law school professor who runs the blog http://insidethelawschoolscam.blogspot.com/

  6. August 7, 2012 at 12:28 pm

    What is your definition of a whistleblower? If a member of an organization reports a problem (say a problem which is not a serious legal violation) to the press or a government agency without first trying to resolve the problem within their organization, does that person fit your definition of “whistleblower”? What if the stock price then tanks and the company goes bankrupt? If the person could have resolved the problem within the policies of the organization, does that person deserve anonymity when they try to move on to their next company?

  7. SagittariusA
    August 7, 2012 at 3:15 pm

    Is it true though that no one will hire you if you were once a whistleblower?

    It’d be fun to see a hard longitudinal study on the careers of whistleblowers after they made their revelations.

    It really is a fascinating subject though. Maybe one incentive to avoid whistleblowers is that co-workers and partners might not perceive them as trustworthy even in very basic situations. I.e. if you spilled the beans on a past employer, what does that signal about your character in private exchange? Perhaps that you don’t do a good job of following group norms, which is essential in many businesses, or that you are all too willing to sacrifice the group.

    That’s a very visceral threat to people, especially, I think, in High Finance.

    I am not saying that it is good thinking, of course, just that it might play a role.

  8. August 7, 2012 at 4:19 pm

    Methinks it’s a matter of the Truthsayers against the Teamplayers. Ye must choose and suffer the consequences. In our mixed and muddy history, some – like Nat Turner – chose to stand on principle and die, as did most Truthsayers of their purpose; others chose to team up and help other slaves build the White House of a future more just nation – like Michelle Obama’s ancestors – hoping eventually Justice Will Emerge. Both are plausible,effective alternatives of choice – with different perspectives and time frames.

    Our currently corrupted, imperialist, and paranoid country may indeed order the death of Julian Assange, the principled Whistleblower Truthsayer of our times. If so, he will never be forgotten, as indeed will the legions of Neolithic, NeoCon Pathological Elites who have for so long perverted our international policies.

  9. mathematrucker
    August 7, 2012 at 10:42 pm

    I recently checked out of the library the excellent Ralph Nader documentary “An Unreasonable Man” and watched it again. In it Nader describes how employees blowing the whistle on the auto industry went to great lengths to avoid being caught for fear of losing their jobs. My first thought at hearing that was, “Well you didn’t choose your job very carefully then, did you. You should be glad if you have to go do something else!”

    I don’t know if this counts as whistleblowing, but Ted Kaczynski’s family turning him into the police is an especially interesting example (of something that’s at least along the same lines).

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