Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 13, Issue 10;   March 6, 2013: Before You Blow the Whistle: I

Before You Blow the Whistle: I

by

When organizations know that they've done something they shouldn't have, or they haven't done something they should have, they often try to conceal the bad news. When dealing with whistleblowers, they can be especially ruthless.
Rofecoxib, the active ingredient of Vioxx

A model of the chemical structure of Rofecoxib, the active ingredient of Vioxx. At a U.S. Senate Finance Committee hearing on November 18, 2004, Dr. David Graham, a safety scientist for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, testified that the agency's handling of Merck & Co Inc.'s withdrawn painkiller Vioxx, was a "profound regulatory failure" by an agency "incapable of protecting America" from another dangerous drug. Shortly thereafter, as reported by Marc Kaufman in The Washington Post, the nonprofit Government Accountability Project (GAP), which assists whistleblowers, started receiving anonymous telephone calls discrediting Dr. Graham and his work. With a little sleuthing, the GAP staff members were able to determine that the calls were coming from Dr. Graham's FDA managers. This incident is an example of a professional attack that failed. Many succeed. Image (CC by SA 3.0) by Tarique012.

If you work in an organization that has transgressed in a serious way, you might be considering whether or not to make information available to the public, the media, or to government authorities. If you continue to work there, and you have knowledge of violations, you might be involving yourself in illegal behavior, or at the very least, violating your own moral code. Sorting through these questions is much easier if you have professional support from an attorney, a counselor, or a therapist.

As difficult as these issues are, there are other matters to consider. Specifically, if you do "blow the whistle," how will your employer respond? How will your fellow employees respond?

There are obvious responses, including denials, personal attacks, reassignment, harassment, vandalism, termination, blackmail, extortion, and even brutality. Famous cases of whistleblowers are littered with these obvious measures. Here's Part I of a little catalog of some less-obvious tactics for which it's more difficult to prepare oneself.

Other whistleblowers
People in these situations tend not to consider the possibility that someone else has already blown the whistle, or is about to. If that happens to you, then you might already have been targeted for investigation; you might already be regarded as a co-conspirator.
Perform an inventory of people you know who have information that could incriminate you. Assess the likelihood that someone is already conferring with authorities. If you sense that you're vulnerable, seek counsel and act quickly. If you think you still have some time, estimate how much time you have and get busy preparing material to use if you do contact authorities. Even if you act too late, a freshly prepared store of material could lend credibility to your claim that you were intending to act.
Professional attacks
If the whistleblowerProspective whistleblowers tend not
to consider the possibility that
someone else has already blown
the whistle, or is about to
or prospective whistleblower is in a technical or specialized job, questions about the work products of the whistleblower are generally technical. For this reason, direct professional attacks of the obvious type might be effective, but evaluating them is difficult for people outside the profession. A more effective family of tactics involves degrading the whistleblower's own work products, so as to cause colleagues to discredit the whistleblower professionally. Direct tampering is possible, but so is tampering with data, devices, or the quality of materials upon which the whistleblower's own work depends.
If you suddenly detect irregularities in your own work products, or in the resources on which your work products depend, reporting them through formal, regular channels might not be wise, because it signals the tamperers that you're aware of what they've done. Instead, consider enhancing security protecting your work, or creating a duplicate and far more secure version of your work, while allowing the tamperers to continue their operations on a false, less-secure version.

We'll continue next time, exploring more tactics that can erode whistleblower credibility.  Next in this series Go to top Top  Next issue: Before You Blow the Whistle: II  Next Issue

303 Secrets of Workplace PoliticsIs every other day a tense, anxious, angry misery as you watch people around you, who couldn't even think their way through a game of Jacks, win at workplace politics and steal the credit and glory for just about everyone's best work including yours? Read 303 Secrets of Workplace Politics, filled with tips and techniques for succeeding in workplace politics. More info

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See also Workplace Politics and Managing Your Boss for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

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People engaged in knowledge work must often respond to questions that test the limits of their knowledge, or the limits of everyone's knowledge. Responding effectively to such questions advances us all. Available here and by RSS on April 17.
Three gears in a configuration that's inherently locked upAnd on April 24: Antipatterns for Time-Constrained Communication: 1
Knowing how to recognize just a few patterns that can lead to miscommunication can be helpful in reducing the incidence of problems. Here is Part 1 of a collection of communication antipatterns that arise in technical communication under time pressure. Available here and by RSS on April 24.

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