S Science from Virginia Tech
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published in 2002

Sherron Watkins was not without justification in her concern that she might suffer retaliation for exposing the accounting scandal at Enron, according to Joyce Rothschild, who has conducted the only national study of whistleblowers from all walks of life and from all parts of the United States.

Rothschild, professor of sociology at Virginia Tech, did an eight-year study, conducting indepth interviews with 300 whistleblowers and more than 200 surveys of people who observed wrongdoing but chose to remain silent. She found that 69 percent were fired as a result of exposing wrongdoing, even when they only reported it to higher ups within their own employer’s organization. Of those who left their organization to report misconduct to outside authorities, more than 80 percent were fired.

Rothschild, who has published five academic articles on her studies, found in many cases that the moment senior management realized an individual might blow the whistle, “they began a race to discredit the would-be whistleblower before the whistleblower could discredit them.” In the battle for vindication, and for their jobs, whistleblowers seldom emerged unscathed. In 84 percent of her cases, former whistleblowers said they became depressed and could no longer trust the managers of organizations. In 53 percent of her cases, the whistleblowers suffered deterioration even in their family relations.

Indeed, Rothschild says, statistical analysis of the data found that the larger and more systemic the misconduct reported by the whistleblower, the more swift and severe were the reprisals. Neither gender, nor race, nor age, nor level of educational attainment, nor years on the job could insulate a whistleblower from retaliation.

Why do people take these personal risks? Rothschild found that 79 percent of her whistleblowers were stirred to action by their values. “Sometimes they said that they got their sense of right and wrong from the codes of professional ethics embedded in their various occupations; sometimes they attributed their moral compass to religious upbringing or family teaching; but in nearly all cases, they said they were trying to do ‘the right thing’,” Rothschild says. “Of the remaining ones, 16 percent said that their whistleblowing had been defensive: they were afraid that they would be blamed for the misconduct of others if they did not report it, and 5 percent said that they really weren’t sure why they had spoken up.”

Many organizational factors lay the groundwork for whistleblowing, Rothschild says. She found that the employee is most likely to blow the whistle when he or she observes the same misconduct many times and comes to view the employer as immoral and the senior managers as non-democratic and probably complicit in the wrongdoing.

“We live in an information-driven economy where organizations can be amazingly complex and opaque, often by design,” Rothschild says. “Under these circumstances, well-placed employees — people who see the questionable acts in the process of doing their jobs — may be the only people who are in a position to know when the organization has gone awry, such as when one of its products will be defective, when it is placing a hazard in its workplace or in the environment, or when it is defrauding the government or the public.

“If we want these people to come forward and speak with candor to their superiors in the organization, letting them know what they have observed before the organization loses customer confidence, gets hit with liability suits, or completely implodes in a public scandal, then we will need to shore up legislation that will better protect whistleblowers from the swift and almost certain retaliation they now face. Moreover,” Rothschild says, “given the preponderance of organizations in my study whose first response was to get rid of the whistleblower and to suppress critical information, the evidence suggests strongly that organizations of all types have a long way to go in learning how to tolerate and even benefit from the dissenting views of conscientious whistleblowers, as these are often the early warning signs of trouble ahead.”

Rothschild is working on a book tentatively called Whistleblower Disclosures: The Battle to Control Information about Organizational Corruption.

Contact Joyce Rothschild at 540/231-5426 or joycer@vt.edu.

— Written by Sally Harris

 

Whistleblowers’ concern about retaliation not without justification, Virginia Tech sociologist’s study shows