Whippersnapper whistleblowers beware: You’re in a tough business

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Being a whistleblower is fashionable right now. It's appealing to be the person who rights the wrongs of the workplace. And many people dream of busting their boss publicly for smarmy acts done privately.

Discrimination, kickbacks, broken promises — these are illegal and immoral acts that happen every day in the workplace. But be careful. Because the most common result of whistle blowing is not reform. The most common result is that whistleblowers lose their job.

Of course, it is illegal to fire a whistleblower for being a whistleblower per se. But the odds are that you will be fired: First your boss lets you know he hates you. Then you get no new projects. Then you stop having anything to do at work and your career stagnates. If you're lucky, you will be able to go to another company. If you're unlucky, your name will be mud throughout your industry.

This is not to say that we shouldn't have whistleblowers. I am as impressed as anyone else with the three whistleblowers on the cover of Time magazine as “persons of the year.” Cynthia Cooper (WorldComm), Sherron Watkins (Enron) and Coleen Rowley (the FBI), showed enormous courage and integrity when they blew the whistle.

But an important thing about these women is that they were all very advanced in their careers. They were at a point where they were trusted widely for their expertise. And part of their expertise was knowing what really mattered in the moral fabric of corporate America. Surely, they had all been harassed at work, and they had all heard someone cutting corners on commissions. These women probably spent decades reporting nothing. They chose their battle carefully.

If one of these women had made a stink the first time she was harassed, if she had brought that case to court, she probably would have received some sort of financial settlement, but her career would be over. She would not have climbed high enough on the corporate ladder to make the huge difference in corporate ethics that she did.

In order to make a huge difference in corporate ethics that is significant enough to be worth losing your career, you should aim to make a difference at the top. Most people who are at the beginning of their careers will not have the ability to make that difference. All you potential whistleblowers in the whippersnapper ranks, think twice about sacrificing your career in the name of corporate ethics.

You can't be a whistlblower each time your morality is offended: You'd never be able to hold down a job. So wait until the moral aberration is huge. And huge is relative, so know what sort of aberrations are out there so you can compare. (Reading assignment: Tales from the Boom Boom Room for extreme examples of sexual harassment and discrimination.) For the most part, our experiences are not extreme, and they should be dealt with through normal, company means — no need for whistleblowing.

Some times you will report questionable behavior to human resources and nothing will change. Stay focused. You will need to put up with a lot of morally questionable behavior at work in order to climb the ladder to a high enough point where you can make a difference. If you don't make it up the ladder, you will squander your power to make change by making small stinks about small issues that will get no attention from people in power.

For some of you, there will come a time when you do have a case against your company. You should call the Government Accountability Project. This nonprofit group counsels whistleblowers before they toot, and represents them after they get fired.

Until then, hunker down. Report abuse to someone within your chain of command. And don't piss people off so much that you undermine your ability to get real power to make change. Save your moral high ground until you get to high ranks.

1 reply
  1. Women, Speak Up at Work!
    Women, Speak Up at Work! says:

    I totally agree with all the points in this article. However, I hope that people don’t take this to mean not to speak up. There are ways to do it proportionately to your position and your role. For example, if a coworker makes a sexist comment, you don’t need to call HR or sue to make an impact. You can just say “Don’t say that” or “That’s kind of offensive”. Any comment is better than no comment, as newbies to the corporate world may not yet be sensitized to the impact that kind of language has in a workplace.

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