01 Jun

An Investigator’s Guide to Whistle-Blower’s: Part 2 of 6

Explaining Some of the Psychology Behind Disclosure and Retaliation

It’s the one thing they never imagined.  The whistle-blower believed people, especially his/her supervisors, would see what needed to be done and start the process of correction.  It seemed so obvious, so righteous.  No sooner than the disclosure had been publicly voiced, the whistle-blower, whether they knew it at the time or not, began the lonely journey to becoming an outcast in their own backyard.

When a whistle-blower comes forward, the whistle-blower and other affected employees of an organization fall victim to unconscious psychological responses that dictate subsequent behavior.  These behaviors are almost automatic and lead people to conclusions, which are favorable to their self-image, depending on the perspective.  If an investigator is able to understand these psychological processes that compel behavior, there is a better likelihood of establishing empathy and trust with a whistle-blower.

Often erroneously, the whistle-blower believes that doing the right thing (the initial disclosure) will have no impact on their employment nor will the disclosure have an impact on their relation with fellow employees.  This is a classic example of the false consensus bias, which is the belief that others including fellow employees, given the same information, would make the exact same decision as the whistle-blower.  From history as well as experience, we know that is untrue.  “Rather than being applauded for exposing illicit actions that can potentially harm the organization’s financial standing and reputation, whistleblowers are often castigated for attempting to challenge and upset the status quo.”[1]  When the disclosure is made, the whistle-blower normally hasn’t given the slightest thought to potentially negative consequences of his/her action.

When retaliation against the whistle-blower inevitably begins, the whistle-blower is at a loss as to why they are being treated differently.  The whistle-blower perceives his/her actions as acting on good conscious and trying to improve the organization.  When things turn against the whistle-blower, they are shocked and surprised.  In this situation, their cognitive dissonance is peaking, which in turn, causes high levels of stress.  The whistleblower tends to react to the stress by reverting to the denial stage to remove dissonance and re-establish equilibrium.  Denial continues until an event occurs where the manifestation of the retaliation is too obvious to ignore such as when former friends uniformly get up from a table after the whistle-blower sits down, processes remain the same despite the disclosure and/or overt steps are taken to avoid conversations with the whistle-blower.  As the dissonance returns, the whistle-blower frequently looks outside the employing organization to maintain social bonds. Typically, the whistle-blower finds family members to serve as his/her listening post.
At this point, an investigator could position himself/herself as the ear willing to listen, but more often than not, the whistle-blower is still holding out hope that the in-group (his fellow employees) will quickly see the virtue in what he/she has disclosed.  Once again, psychological processes will not allow this to happen.  When other employees find out about the whistle-blower’s disclosure, the social stigma of “tattling” has an effect.   “The notion persists that it is disloyal and irresponsible to criticize one’s employer, notwithstanding the fact that the company has done wrong.”[2]  By divulging information as a whistle-blower, group members can perceive the action to be disloyal and betraying the group justifies retaliation in the minds of group members.  “Individuals who are highly inter-dependent upon one another for success and have previously fostered strong feelings of solidarity are more prone to demand loyalty from their members, regardless of whether or not such loyalty is appropriate or beneficial.”[3]

There are also individual psychological processes occurring that naturally lead other employees to self-justify their actions.  Other organizational employees also experience cognitive dissonance due to the social comparison theory, in which these employees compare themselves directly to the whistle-blower. By coming forward with illegal, illicit, and/or immoral information about the organization, the whistle-blower stirs up feelings of anger, fear and shame.[4]  Feelings such as these are unpleasant and our minds naturally try to preserve our self-image, which can lead to retaliatory acts against the whistle-blower.  “Individual’s anger may arise, not out of righteous indignation for being falsely accused, but rather, out of a desire to protect their self-image by placing blame elsewhere.” Many times, these same employees may have had knowledge, suspected, or felt they should have known the same things as the whistle-blower but either made conscious or sub-conscious decisions not to disclose.  This fosters feelings of inadequacy and shame that goes against our tendency to look favorably upon ourselves. [5] “Individuals often choose to engage in self-deception because it allows them to ‘behave self-interestedly while, at the same time, falsely believing that one’s moral principles were upheld.”[6]  Perceiving oneself to be moral and just makes it easy to re-categorize the whistle-blower as an out-group member, thereby sub-consciously condoning retaliation against the whistle-blower.

The manifestations of retaliation can be incredibly egregious for whistle-blowers.  Billie Garde was a United States Census Bureau employee and a single mother of two whose supervisor directed her to misrepresent civil service scores for certain applicants so certain preferred people could be hired.  Garde, who was a former schoolteacher, was also directed by the same supervisor to recruit former female students to serve as sex partners for visiting political officials.  When Garde refused these directions and blew the whistle on her manager, she was fired by the United States Census Bureau shortly thereafter.  After being fired, Garde’s manager had so much anger towards Garde, he made concerted efforts to assist Garde’s ex-husband in a court battle over custody of Garde’s children., which eventually was adjudicated in the ex-husband’s favor.[7]

Charles D. Varnadore was a whistle-blower who expressed concern about radiation exposure at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory.  Varnadore went on television to express his concern about the high rates of cancer among Oak Ridge National Laboratory employees who worked at the facility as well as the negligent practices to protect employees from radiation exposure.  Subsequent to his disclosure, Varnadore was transferred to a room full of toxic and radioactive substances while being given useless work.[8]

Understanding these psychological processes and how they relate to the whistle-blower experience will help an investigator better understand the whistle-blower’s experience.  On most occasions, an investigator will not be able to make contact with a whistle-blower until many of these events have occurred.  Having endured intense emotions and betrayal, gaining the trust of the whistle-blower will be an issue.  An investigator who is able to explain why certain things have occurred can start to forge a bond with the whistle-blower and in this early stage, the first building blocks of trust between the investigator and the whistle-blower could be formed.

[1] Sumanth, J.; Mayer, D.; & Kay, V. (2011).  Why Good Guys Finish Last: The Role of Justification, Motives, Cognition, and Emotion in Predicting Retaliation Against Whistleblowers, Organizational Psychology Review, 1(165), April 8, 2011.  Taken from the Internet on May 13, 2016 at http//www.opr.sagepub.com/content/1/2/165

[2] Unknown Author(s) (1994).  Whistleblowers: Who’s the Real Bad Guy?, American management Association, 1994.  Taken from the Internet on May 13, 2016 at http//www.ethics.csc.ncsu.edu/old/12_00/basics/whistle/rst/bad_guy.html

[3] Sumanth, J.; Mayer, D.; & Kay, V. (2011).  Why Good Guys Finish Last: The Role of Justification, Motives, Cognition, and Emotion in Predicting Retaliation Against Whistleblowers, Organizational Psychology Review, 1(165), April 8, 2011.  Taken from the Internet on May 13, 2016 at http//www.opr.sagepub.com/content/1/2/165

[4] Sumanth, J.; Mayer, D.; & Kay, V. (2011).  Why Good Guys Finish Last: The Role of Justification, Motives, Cognition, and Emotion in Predicting Retaliation Against Whistleblowers, Organizational Psychology Review, 1(165), April 8, 2011.  Taken from the Internet on May 13, 2016 at http//www.opr.sagepub.com/content/1/2/165

[5] Heflick, N. A. (2013, June 29). Why Are People Mean? Part 1. Retrieved May 30, 2016, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-big-questions/201306/why-are-people-mean-part-1

[6] Sumanth, J.; Mayer, D.; & Kay, V. (2011).  Why Good Guys Finish Last: The Role of Justification, Motives, Cognition, and Emotion in Predicting Retaliation Against Whistleblowers, Organizational Psychology Review, 1(165), April 8, 2011.  Taken from the Internet on May 13, 2016 at http//www.opr.sagepub.com/content/1/2/165

[7] Unknown Author(s) (1994).  Whistleblowers: Who’s the Real Bad Guy?, American management Association, 1994.  Taken from the Internet on May 13, 2016 at http//www.ethics.csc.ncsu.edu/old/12_00/basics/whistle/rst/bad_guy.html

[7] Sumanth, J.; Mayer, D.; & Kay, V. (2011).  Why Good Guys Finish Last: The Role of Justification, Motives, Cognition, and Emotion in Predicting Retaliation Against Whistleblowers, Organizational Psychology Review, 1(165), April 8, 2011.  Taken from the Internet on May 13, 2016 at http//www.opr.sagepub.com/content/1/2/165

[8] Unknown Author(s) (1994).  Whistleblowers: Who’s the Real Bad Guy?, American management Association, 1994.  Taken from the Internet on May 13, 2016 at http//www.ethics.csc.ncsu.edu/old/12_00/basics/whistle/rst/bad_guy.html

[8] Sumanth, J.; Mayer, D.; & Kay, V. (2011).  Why Good Guys Finish Last: The Role of Justification, Motives, Cognition, and Emotion in Predicting Retaliation Against Whistleblowers, Organizational Psychology Review, 1(165), April 8, 2011.  Taken from the Internet on May 13, 2016 at http//www.opr.sagepub.com/content/1/2/165

 

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

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