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Peter Rost: Whistleblowers - Who Are They?

Whistleblowers - Who Are They?


By Peter Rost M. D.

Most people wonder how anyone can become a whistleblower—ever. After all, most stories of whistleblowers don’t end well. And that’s the reason most people keep quite.

It’s called self preservation.

So who are these people who go against the crowd?

In my book “The Whistleblower” I start out with the following description:

A study of 233 whistleblowers by Donald Soeken, St. Elizabeth's Hospital in Washington, DC found that the average whistleblower was a family man in his forties with a strong conscience and high moral values. After blowing the whistle on fraud, 90 percent of the whistleblowers were fired or demoted, 27 percent faced lawsuits, 26 percent had to seek psychiatric or physical care, 25 percent suffered alcohol abuse, 17 percent lost their homes, 15 percent got divorced, 10 percent attempted suicide, and 8 percent were bankrupted. But in spite of all this, only 16 percent said that they wouldn’t blow the whistle again.

One thing I’ve learned—which didn’t exactly come as a surprise—is that most organizations react the same way to whistleblowers. The basic response is “kill the messenger.” And if he goes public, he is all but guaranteed to lose his standing in the group.

So when I blew the whistle the third time around, at the Huffington Post, it didn’t surprise me that they immediately locked me out and stopped me from writing further articles for them. Of course, one reason I criticized the HuffPo publicly was because, based on my experience, I didn’t think doing so quietly would help and I also wanted to test this hypothesis. It also shouldn’t surprise anyone that they were forced to implement my recommendations (prohibit employees from anonymously posting on blogs and remove “reader’s favorite comments”which I had shown could be abused).

Whistleblowers are often right, however, most organizations feel it is more important not to be embarrassed than to correct what is wrong. So the whistleblower is seen as a bigger threat than the problem they bring up. When Enron whistleblower Sherron Watkins went to the CEO to save the company, she didn’t get a pat on the shoulder. Instead, Ken Lay, the CEO, tried to fire her. This is a typical reaction. Of course, part of the problem is that corruption often starts at the top, so when employees try to correct things they discover that they step on some mighty toes.

So how can someone be crazy enough to blow the whistle?

After all, I wouldn’t recommend for anyone to do what I’ve done. I guess whistleblowing should have the same disclaimer they use in car commercials: Closed course, professional driver, do not try on your own.

But I always believed, that just like a professional driver, I’d be able to pull this stunt off. I’ve never encountered anything I couldn’t resolve in the end. We’ll see if that’s true this time around as well.

This still begs the question, however . . . how can anyone be crazy enough to be a whistleblower?

Clearly, there are lots of good, conscientious people in every industry; yet, most of them don’t end up in such an exposed situation.

The reason for that is, I think, that when you work in lower or middle management, you don’t see the big picture and you don’t see all the things that are going on. It’s not your job to deal with those problems. And, at least in my experience, once you get to a more senior management level, that’s when suddenly all hell breaks lose. And this is also the reason management is so careful about whom they promote to this level. Everyone knows this isn’t just about the best guy for the job—it is about trust. Management needs to trust the senior employee to do the “right thing,” and that may be defined very differently in different companies. Usually it means quietly solving things, or looking the other way, or to be able to take a hint when to back off.

But some people don’t take that hint. Are they born troublemakers, born whistleblowers?

I don’t think so. I think whistleblowers are made, not born. They simply saw enough and said “enough is enough.” It’s basically a matter of fairness. Some had no choice. “Join the conspiracy, act or quit.” Those are the options. Not an easy choice. And some choose to act. When the company doesn’t like their action they are branded “whistleblowers.”

Animal experiments support this contention.

You see, animals appear to have an inherent sense of fairness and justice, just like humans. In experiments with Capuchins, they proved they knew unfairness when they encountered this.

Capuchins prefer grapes to cucumbers, and when a scientist in a test gave a grape to one capuchin and a cucumber to another, the latter threw it onto the ground and stalked away rather than give in to this injustice. In another experiment, these animals learned to trade a plastic pipe for food. If they saw another capuchin make a trade for a delicious grape, but were offered a cucumber in exchange for their own plastic pipe, they were much more likely to refuse to hand it over in return for the stupid vegetable. Clearly, they felt it was better to go hungry than to give in to this unfairness. Many similar experiments have been performed, showing that animals rather have nothing than something, if another animal is treated better.

And humans may operate the same way. It may be better to become a whistleblower and stop an injustice, even though the cost is much higher than the gain, simply based on this sense of unfairness.

Many studies in humans have confirmed that this is how we operate. In one experiment, one person is offered $100 and then tells his teammate that he will only get $25 out of that $100, or they’ll both get nothing, and the teammate usually refuses, and so they both get nothing.

Whistleblowing; it’s about fairness. Doing the right thing; correct an injustice.

It’s not something people do lightly, because the penalties in our society are so high—no job, no money, no future, etc.

But deep down it is probably hardwired into our brains.

Just like the response is hardwired. We need cooperation to survive. Whistleblowing is perceived as a threat to the group: Kill the wolf that doesn’t acquiesce.

We are all wolfs in a Wolfpack.

Which pack do you want to belong to?

*************

Peter Rost, M.D., is a former Vice President of Pfizer. He became well known in 2004 when he emerged as the first drug company executive to speak out in favor of reimportation of drugs. He is the author of "The Whistleblower, Confessions of a Healthcare Hitman." See: http://the-whistleblower-by-peter-rost.blogspot.com/

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