I was punished for telling the truth. You hear that a lot from whistleblowers. Not what they expected for doing the right thing. Some organizations see whistleblowers as disloyal. So, when they fire, harass, demote, dox, or professionally blacklist a worker, supervisors see it as punishment, not retaliation.
So, anonymity is key. The laws protecting whistleblowers from retaliation are strengthened by provisions for anonymity. What do they need to be protected from? Anyone who has ever gotten on the wrong side of a toxic boss or an unfair co-worker has had a taste of it.
The National Whistleblower Center offers a list of whistleblower protection practices to avoid retaliation. The NWC site shares the story of Jane Turner, a 25-year veteran special agent with the FBI who is also the chairwoman of the NWC’s Whistleblower Leadership Council. She led the FBI’s programs for women and children on North Dakota Indian reservations and reported problems with the program. Turner said the aftermath was the destruction of her career and finances and post-traumatic stress syndrome.
Here’s how they describe her case:
Turner was removed from her position and transferred to an office without a desk or a chair. She was subjected to fitness for duty reviews while coworkers were instructed to avoid and ignore her. Eventually, she was removed from service for an entire year.
She believed she would be safeguarded by her superior’s similar views on the misconduct brought forward. Instead, she faced harsh retaliatory measures as a consequence. These experiences can be demoralizing and damaging to reputation and livelihood.
Turner’s case is more the norm than the exception. Most whistleblowers have stories of pink slips, good evaluations going bad or co-workers who turn away or turn hostile. Some report surveillance, vandalism, threats and even violence. Many never work in their fields again.
Backbone of whistleblower protection
NPR asks Jesselyn Radack, a former Department of Justice lawyer who represents government whistleblowers, why anonymity is important.
RADACK: Because anonymity is the backbone of every whistleblower protection law that’s out there right now. People obviously are very reluctant to come forward because they fear precisely the kind of retaliation that President Trump is unfortunately exhibiting. Whistleblowers are already chilled in a variety of different ways. But to have the president of the United States making these kinds of threats will make anyone think twice.
Unmasking as retaliation
NWC chair Stephen Kohn tells NPR that unmasking the whistleblower is itself a form of retaliation. He also says that the 2014 Whistleblower protection act obligates the president to protect this whistleblower’s identity.
Kohn said Trump could be subject to what’s called a writ of mandamus, a court order to a government official to properly carry out his or her official duties. While no president in 215 years has been subject to a mandamus, Kohn says it should be on the table.
“These questions go to the heart of democracy and the rule of law,” Kohn said. “This is an existential issue because you have the person with the legal responsibility to enforce and protect turning around and using that very authority to destroy.”
Kohn is also quoted in a piece on the website of the Wharton School at University of Pennsylvania:
Butt even before this particular turn of events, the decision to act on conscience in response to wrongdoing was considered “a very risky proposition for an employee who would like to stay working at the company,” says Janice Bellace, Wharton professor emeritus of legal studies and business ethics. That’s because for all of the prominence of whistleblowing in the past decade or so, there is still often no safe roadmap for a worker who has seen something to say something.
Intelligence community at risk
Vox ask three lawyers why intelligence community whistleblowers are especially vulnerable.
Intelligence community whistleblowers have limited recourse from a legal standpoint. Not only are there scant laws protecting them, experts told Vox, it’s also especially hard for them to fight back against any retaliation because they’re barred from talking about their work in a public capacity.
“Traditionally, the intelligence community — including agencies such as the CIA and NSA — have been hostile to any outside oversight and they operate in secrecy,” David Colapinto, a founding attorney of the National Whistleblower Center, tells Vox. “These agencies have viewed whistleblowing as risking the disclosure of classified information.”