The public image of a whistleblower is of an employee who witnesses wrongdoing and takes the information public. Subsequently, the world comes crashing down on them as their employer retaliates. But, that’s not always how it plays out. Some workers simply decline to break the law or do not take their concerns about wrongdoing beyond their immediate supervisors. They may be viewed by their employers as “whistleblowers” even though they are believe they were just doing their jobs. Occasionally, too, an employee is mistaken for a whistleblower who reported problems anonymously. Any of these “whistleblowers” may experience career-ending reprisals. Saving one’s career requires being alert to signs that one has been targeted as a whistleblower.
The ways employers retaliate against whistleblowers are fairly consistent across industries and government agencies. If you experience one or more of the following changes in your work situation, there’s a good chance that your employer views you as a whistleblower.
1. After years of excellent performance appraisals and awards, your boss suddenly becomes highly critical of your work for reasons that are vague or hard to fathom. You’re unfairly criticized for “poor communication skills” or accused of being “uncooperative,” “threatening,” or absent without leave. The employer is creating a paper trail that it can use as a basis for firing you and discrediting you as a witness.
2. Your usual duties are taken away and you are given useless or redundant work to perform . . . or none at all. This, they hope, prevents you from discovering any more reasons to blow the whistle.
3. You’re quarantined. Most often, this is done by moving one’s desk to a closet or reassigning the employee to a remote duty station. Isolation undermines a whistleblower’s confidence and prevents other staff from being enlisted as supporting witnesses.
4. Your health or physical safety are threatened. Your tires are slashed in the company lot. You’re exposed to hazardous substances. You get threatening, anonymous phone calls. A car tries to run you off the road.
5. You’re being sabotaged. The boss gives you an impossible assignment or denies you the resources needed to successfully complete an assignment. The travel office repeatedly gives you inaccurate information about flight times, hotel reservations and car rentals. Materials used in your work keep disappearing from your locked office. A supervisor tries to goad you into losing your temper or gives you conflicting orders.
If it appears that you have been targeted, consult an attorney or a whistleblower organization for advice on protective actions you can take. Your career may depend on it.
Photo by Kate Ter Haar (Flickr Creative Commons license)
Opinions expressed are those of the author.