By Tom Devine
Legal Director, Government Accountability Project
This column is part of Federal News Radio’s special report, Trust Redefined: Reconnecting Government and Its Employees.
Historically, whistleblowers are magnets for distrust and retaliation. Actions to silence them and suppress their message are understandable from a basic survival instinct. For federal managers, if an organizational threat is perceived from anyone, the basic survival instinct to eliminate the threat by crushing the whistleblower is strong. But such knee-jerk responses are wrong, unnecessary and usually a counterproductive lose-lose scenario for all concerned.
Ironically, federal whistleblowers normally act out of loyalty to their agency or its mission. If they successfully gain the trust of superiors, overnight their reputation becomes one of a problem solver, not a threat. If more managers view them through this prism — seeing whistleblowers as engaging in the freedom to contribute rather than dissent — then the consequences from disclosures will shift sharply from mutually negative to mutually positive.
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Over the last quarter-century there has been a legal revolution in rights both for government and corporate whistleblowers, who are lionized by the public as never before. But they are a source of increasing conflict within organizations. Rates of retaliation actually have risen as rights have been created or strengthened.
It shouldn’t be this way, nor does it have to be.
When dealing with whistleblowers, federal managers should be cognizant of lessons learned:
Further, it’s a lot more work to retaliate than it used to be and it’s not going to change. Whistleblowers’ legal rights have a remarkable congressional mandate – four unanimous approvals since 1978 for rights with increasingly wide scopes and steadily stronger due process teeth. At a minimum, employees who want to defend themselves can force agencies into years of distracting, draining depositions and document releases that also may expose far more than the whistleblower’s original disclosure. And now that the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act has passed, employees have a fighting chance to actually win their cases.
Intimidation clogs the free flow of information for effective government action. The most severe consequence of a chilling effect is when decision makers must fly blind because vital information was suppressed. The 9/11 Commission identified that as a primary cause for the tragedy. Managers must reject a culture of ignorance.
The solution for proper whistleblower treatment is not complicated: Train! Train! Train!
A legal revolution has occurred in recent years, but only a token percentage of agency managers, or even employees, have learned the boundaries of new rights and responsibilities. How many readers know that Controlled Unclassified Information status does not cancel public whistleblowing rights? These types of knowledge gaps must be rectified. Adequate training must include developing a workplace culture of openness and acceptance of whistleblowers as problem solvers. At a minimum, all agencies should participate actively in the Office of Special Counsel program for certification of merit system compliance.
With whistleblower acceptance, lose-lose situations will be replaced by win-wins. Like in private industry, they should be agencies’ main channel for prevention, solution and damage control. Not conflict.
Tom Devine is legal director for the Government Accountability Project. GAP is a non-profit organization that advocates for the protection of whistleblowers.