02 Jun

An Investigator’s Guide to the Whistleblower: Part 3 of 6

 The Bottom of the Barrel

Doing the right thing can be a cruel life lesson for whistle-blower’s.  After assuming company executives would applaud the whistle-blower’s efforts for bringing derogatory and potentially illegal information to their attention, the whistle-blower suddenly finds himself/herself no longer employed and blackballed from the industry where he/she had previously made their living.  In this situation, the whistle-blower’s cognitive dissonance is high because doing what they perceived as correct has sent their lives into a tailspin.

As with most people, the whistle-blower’s job is deeply rooted in their personal identity.  When people lose their job, they lose a part of their identity and this causes emotional as well as physical distress.  Sherrie Bourg Carter, a psychologist and author, believes that losing or being fired from a job can mirror the grief experienced when losing a loved one.[1]  As with anyone who has lost a loved one, there will be good days as well as bad for the whistle-blower with emotions ranging from extreme highs to extreme lows.

In addition, whistle-blowers tend to become infatuated by their cause and pursue it 24/7.  This is not abnormal and is actually, a by-product of workplace retaliation.  “One effect of harassment is to become too close to the problem.”[2]  Unable to remove himself/herself from the perceived wrong, whistle-blowers obsess about their predicament at substantial cost to their personal well-being. In a study done by Australian researchers, alcoholism, nightmares, overwhelming distress and paranoid behavior at work were symptoms reported by a number of whistle-blowers. Panics attacks, hyper-vigilance, and emotional as well as physical isolation were side effects that remained with the whistle-blower years after they made their initial disclosures. [3]

What exacerbates the problem is that many of the trusted confidantes who would normally help the whistle-blower cope with these issues continue to work for the offending organization.  More often than not, the so-called “confidantes” have followed group behavior and chosen to wall themselves off from the whistle-blower in an effort to show loyalty to the new in-group parameters.  This leaves the spouse, significant other, and/or family to serve as the sole source of empathy and understanding, which lead to familial problems.

Studies of families who have endured sudden and unexpected job loss reveal the high probability of stress impacting both parties in a marital relationship.  “An exogenous and involuntary job loss experience is associated with a high risk of distress for the two partners, and may lead to a significant negative effect on family well-being.”[4]  A spouse, who sometimes has had no say in the whistle-blower’s decision to come forward, is also conflicted.  When the whistle-blower is consumed by the event, it can be hard for the spouse to completely understand and empathize, especially as the financial repercussions put a strain on the family’s ability to maintain the lifestyle prior to the initial disclosure.  The additional stress caused by workplace retaliation and the normal inability to find a new job can eventually cause subtle differences between couples to escalate into full-blown arguments.  “When under increased stress, we feel perceived slights, for instance, by our significant other more acutely.”[5]

As the whistle-blower grows increasingly obsessed by the turn of events, the spouse ends up carrying the burden of not only being the sole empathizer but also the person who is attempting to keep the family from buckling under the increased financial and social pressures.  In a study of whistle-blowers in Australia, 20% of respondents reported the breakup of a long-term relationship as a byproduct of their whistle-blowing.[6]

Lost income is not the only pressure faced by the whistle-blower and the spouse.  An investigator must also consider societal considerations relative to the job loss.  Having a job provides an identity as well as an opportunity to interact with others wherein people tend to establish self-esteem as well as a sense of purpose in the community.  When the disclosure is made, the spouse suffers as much as the whistle-blower via the halo effect ensuring the spouse is branded with the same negative connotation as the whistle-blower.[7]  When suddenly cast as an out-group member, whistle-blower’s and their families lose their sense of belonging usually due to ostracism by community members.  Being a social outcast can have dire effects on the whistle-blower and their family.  “The one giving the silent treatment — whether it’s not answering email, turning away in the middle of a conversation, or pretending not to hear a question — gets to feel control. In not explaining the cause, the perpetrator delivers particular pain. The message is loud and clear: You do not matter.”[8]

Cristoph Mieli was working as a security guard for a Swiss insurance company when he came across a trove of documents from the Holocaust.  Inasmuch as he was a history buff, he saw ledgers that contradicted company statements disavowing their involvement in the holocaust.  At first, Mieli was going to ignore the contradictions but after he saw that the documents were destined for a shredder, Mieli fell into cognitive dissonance.  Switzerland had recently passed a law forbidding people and/or companies from destroying war records but taking them from the company would equate to theft.  Finally, Mieli decided to take the ledgers home and his wife forwarded the ledgers to a Jewish organization.  A few days after this, Mieli was suspended from his position at the insurance company, but that would be the least of his concerns.

Before long, the perception of Mieli’s act changed from heroic to potentially criminal.  Mieli was labeled a traitor, a turncoat, a gold-digger and even an Israeli Mossad agent despite being on public assistance at the time.  Swiss judicial authorities even opened an investigation into his actions.  Despite being handed 35 different humanitarian awards and being granted asylum in the United States, Mieli had difficulty finding a job.  The stress eventually became too much for he and his family.  His wife divorced him and took the children with her.  Mieli later remarried and had another child but with little or no means to support them, the second marriage also ended in divorce.  Now married a third time, Mieli is back in Switzerland trying to earn a living.[9]

Months or years after the initial disclosure, the whistle-blower often feels like they have lost everything.  They typically lack confidence in their abilities, are mentally worn down and are struggling to rediscover their place in society. An investigator has much work in front of them if they want the whistle-blower’s cooperation and eventual testimony.  One could argue that proper management of the whistle-blower would depend on the stage in the process where the relationship between whistle-blower and investigator begins.  While that assessment may be correct, the psychological processes will still occur.  The benefit of partnering with the whistle-blower in the early stages of the process, besides gathering even more potentially incriminating evidence, is that the investigator can use the cycle to establish credibility in that the investigator can predict and then help the whistle-blower prepare for what is about to happen.  If an investigator is lucky, he/she may be able to keep the whistle-blower and his/her family from sinking to the bottom of the barrel.

[1] Graves, J. (2014).  The Psychology of Being Fired, U.S. News & World Report, April 17, 2014.  Taken from the Internet on June 15, 2016 at https://money.usnews.com/money/careers/articles/2014/04/17/the-psychology-of-being-fired

[2] Greaves, R. & McGlone, J. (2012).  The Health Consequences of Speaking Out, Social Medicine, Vol (6), Number 4, May 2012.

[3] Wiley-Blackwell. “Greater support is needed to tackle the serious emotional consequences of whistleblowing, study finds.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 12 October 2011. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/10/111011074630.htm>.

[4] Mendolia, S. (2009).  The Impact of Job Loss on Family Mental Health, Society of Labour Economists, 2009.  Taken from the Internet on June 17, 2016 at https://www.iza.org/conference_files/SSch2009/mendolia_s5043.pdf

[5] Grohol, J. (2009).  Stress Hurts Relationships, PsychCentral, 2009.  Taken from the Internet on June 17, 2016 at https://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2009/08/31/stress-hurts-relationships/

[6] Lennane, J. (2012).  What Happens to Whistleblowers, and Why, Social Medicine, Vol. 6, Issue 4, May 2012.  Taken from the Internet on June 21, 2016 at https://www.bmartin.cc/dissent/documents/Lennane_what2.pdf

[7] Mendolia, S. (2012). The impact of husband’s job loss on partners’ mental health, Review of the Economics of the Household, 12(2), 277-294.  Taken from the Internet on June 21, 2016 at https://ro.uow.edu.au/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2088&context=commpapers

[8] Parramore, L. (2014).  The Social Death Penalty: Why Being Ostracized Hurts Even More Than Bullying, Alternet, June 2, 2014.  Taken from the Internet on June 21, 2016 at https://www.alternet.org/culture/social-death-penalty-why-being-ostracized-hurts-even-more-bullying

[9] Smith, A. (2014).  ‘There were hundreds of us crying out for help’:  The afterlife of the whistleblower, The Guardian, November 22, 2014.  Taken from the Internet on June 17, 2016 at https://www.theguardian.com/society/2014/nov/22/there-were-hundreds-of-us-crying-out-for-help-afterlife-of-whistleblower


Image source: By U.S. SEC Office of the Whistleblower [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons