Whistleblowers: Why You’ve Got To Love Them and How To Support Them

Almost 30 years ago, whistleblower therapist and stress expert Donald Soeken asked my help to write some how-to materials on whistleblowing.  I got the gig not based on any published clips (I didn’t have any then), but because the writing sample I gave him was my father’s story of blowing the whistle on an embezzling college president when I was just a baby.  In that sample, I detailed the story I knew all too well about how the retaliation Dad suffered impacted our whole family for decades.

Almost all the people I told about the writing gig made what they thought was a joke:  “Whistleblowers?  Oh, you mean ratters? Snitches?  Stool pigeons?” Given my father’s story, and given the 95-5 odds that my mother’s early death from a rare illness was caused by the FDA’s lack of attentiveness to under-reported side effects of a popular prescription drug, it’s amazing I didn’t do bodily harm to those jokers.

Today, it’s still considered okay to slander whistleblowers, then wonder why more people don’t speak out to warn us about fraud, waste or abuse.  And there are many who are so focused on not being “negative thinkers” or buttinskies or poor team players that we become complicit in all types of wrongdoing.  Fortunately, there are a whole bunch of resources to help you tell truth to power and thrive and/or to support those who dare to speak on your behalf.

Why We Must Love Whistleblowers At Least Enough To Support Them

Think the only people who suffer when whistleblowers are quashed or retaliated against are just the whistleblowers, their friends or families (if they have friends or family who still speak to them after all the retaliation some suffer)?

Think again.  Since caveman times, we’ve needed people to warn us about fraud and dangers in our food, water supply, and protective services.  Today, as we rely on more goods and services from people we will never meet, we need whistleblowers even more.

If we don’t stop routinely ignoring or putting down people who expose wrongdoing, we just won’t have safer streets.  Safer medical care.  Safer economy.  Safer everything.

Imagine how many people would still have their homes and jobs if early truth-tellers about the housing bubble, Enron wrongdoings and Bernie Madoff were heeded and honored by groups that were supposed to be watching out for us, like the SEC?

Truth-Telling is a Basic Spiritual Practice

Almost every Old Testament Prophet story reports how scary it is to heed that call of “You want me to go where?  And say what to that powerful tyrant who has the power to kill me or at least make my life miserable?”

In those stories are also the wisdom that we just can’t evade the call to speak out sometimes.  Even if, like Jonah, we try to run far, far away.

Speaking out is also part of our spiritual call to be there for each other, to get each others’ backs,  so to speak. As Pastor Martin Niemoller put it in his famous Anti-Nazi poem,  “…Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew.  Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak for me.”

An Overdue Celebration of Whistleblowers from the Government Accountability Project.

Last night the Government Accountability Project (GAP), Participant Media and the Paley Center for Media live-streamed a powerful program, “Anyone Can Whistle” featuring 8 whistleblowers.  Among them were Frank Serpico (the NYC cop who was left for dead when he dared expose police corruption), Daniel Ellsberg (whose disclosure of the Pentagon papers exposed deceit over how the government handled the Vietnam War), Kit Foshee (who alerted us to the use of ammonia in beef products which was supposedly going to get rid of salmonella), and Coleen Rowley (Time Magazine’s 2002 “Person of the Year” after exposing intelligence breakdowns before the 9/11 attacks).

To see the archived presentation, go to the GAP website. Then please check out the whole site. Actively support whistleblower protection legislation.

Needed: Training In Effective Truth-telling

Don Soeken has often said that a big problem is that while we are taught to tell the truth, we’re not taught how to do it — though we are taught to fear being called a tattletale. He’s done a great service by supporting whistleblowers in many ways and providing tips for effective whistleblowing.

Coming tomorrow, the integrity training I got from my dad’s whistleblowing experiences.  Coming next week, tips and ideas from a prominent attorney who helps companies flourish by making integrity and civility a touchstone of the corporate culture.  Please join us!

In the meantime, please add your comments below.  How do you blow a whistle on wrongdoing respectfully, in small situations or larger ones?  How do you avoid it?  What tips do you offer for how to support whistleblowers?

As always, many blessings,

Pat McHenry Sullivan