Whistleblowers report illegalities, improprieties, or injustices. They step forward wittingly or unwittingly to report perceived wrongdoing. But when a whistleblower takes on powerful and entrenched systems or people, retribution and retaliation often ensue, endangering their career and reputation. These negative consequences can have longterm impacts on the lives of those who believed they were acting in the public interest especially when patient care or public safety was at risk.
The following account is based on personal and professional experiences, conversations with more than a dozen other whistleblowers at the DoD, VA, several other organizations, and a literature review. This documentation of those informal peer conversations, combined with the research, is meant to provide insight into the experiences of a whistleblower and the need for peer support so that employees can remain resilient.
Adverse Whistleblower Experiences
Most employees do not set out to be whistleblowers. The process begins when the whistleblower perceives wrongdoing or harm that is being committed in their workplace. At a health care organization, whistleblowing often is focused on individual or organizational illegal or unethical activities, such as funding or contracting fraud, corruption, theft, discrimination, sexual harassment, public health safety or security violations, persistent medical errors, nepotism, or other violations of workplace rules and regulations. VA employees who experience, witness, or discover wrongdoing may choose to disclose their concerns to a supervisor, senior leader, the Office of the Inspector General (OIG), Human Resources or Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) Office, Employee Assistance Program (EAP), Office of Special Counsel (OSC), Congress, or to a news organization.
According to the 2013 National Business Ethics Survey, more than 6 million American workers who reported misconduct experienced some form of retaliation.1,2 Retribution can manifest in various overt or covert ways, ranging from outright retaliation and further discrimination to other forms of marginalization. For example, a VA physician alleged that he was detailed to an empty office with no patients after reporting patient wait list mismanagement at his hospital. Other whistleblowers report having misconduct charges levied against them, demotions or loss of position, obstruction from promotion, poor performance evaluations, details to more minor assignments, relocation to more meager office space, or pressure to resign or retire.3
Whistleblowers are rarely rewarded for reporting misconduct within their organization. The Joint Commission describes barriers to reporting sentinel events by medical professionals fearing humiliation, litigation, peer pressure, and oversight investigations if they identify medical errors.4
Once allegations are made, the information often is conveyed to a supervisor or leader. For example, some whistleblowers who have reported a hostile work environment to the DoD EAP have noted that the EAP representative contacted the whistleblower’s manager to mediate the situation. This process can take months or years to resolve. In those instances, the managers are rarely relocated. The whistleblower usually is the one forced to move or take another job, which is not always consistent with their job description, and in turn, may impact their performance rating and opportunities for promotion.
Often, OIG and OSC investigations at the VA and other federal agencies can take as long as 2 years. During that time the whistleblower may remain in a lesser or unwanted position or leave the agency. However, even when OIG substantiates claims of wrongdoing, the agency can make recommendations only to leadership, which may or may not be enacted. Whistleblowers report having to submit Freedom of Information Act requests to learn of the outcome of an OIG investigation when leadership chooses to ignore the recommendation.
Civilian government employees are undervalued by society in general, and the negative stereotypes of lazy, shiftless workers abound, even though many civil servants work to protect the nation’s health, welfare, and safety. Civil servants are familiar with derogatory expressions, such as “bureaucratic bean-counter,” and “good enough for government work.” Even President Trump stated that he would come to Washington, DC, and “drain the swamp.” Yet civil servants can go years without a cost of living increase, a promotion, or a bonus but still be asked to perform additional duties or work long hours to the sacrifice of a work/life balance.
In the Federal Employee Viewpoints Survey and other employee environmental climate scans, high levels of workforce stress often are related to the number of grievances filed, the level of morale, the rates of absenteeism and retention, recruitment shortages, and lost productivity.5 Success in toxic environments usually is based on trying to maintain a “go along to get along” status quo, which means looking the other way when contracts are fraudulently awarded or employee discrimination occurs. If leadership is antagonistic to reform, then identifying wrongdoing may come at significant personal risk.
Once a whistleblower has stepped forward, retaliatory practices may follow. There are tangible legal, financial, social, emotional, and physical tolls to whistleblowing. “Be in for a penny. Be in for a pound,” an OIG official advised one whistleblower. Once a disclosure is made, the process may become arduous for the whistleblower and require individual resilience to face adversity.
Keeping in mind that OIG, EEO, EAP, and OSC are government agencies that investigate, police, and monitor the system, they do not represent the civil servants who document and identify much of the evidence of wrongdoing on their own. Most civil service employees are not subject matter experts on the U.S. legal code that outlines prohibited personal practices or the Federal Acquisition Regulation.
The Notification and Federal Employee Antidiscrimination and Retaliation (NO FEAR) Act authorized in 2002 (U.S. Code § 2301) is designed to inform and protect those who file grievances or disclosures, but operationalizing those protections can be overwhelming and confusing. If a whistleblower wants advice, he or she must retain legal counsel often at a substantial personal cost. Whistleblowers report spending from $10,000 to more than $100,000 in legal fees for a 1- to 2-year investigation.
These legal fees may force whistleblowers to use family finances or borrow money while hoping for justice along with remuneration in the end. In some cases, the financial impact is compounded when the whistleblower has been demoted, denied a promotion, or fired. For medical professionals, the impact might result in the loss of hospital privileges, professional credentials, or state licensure. The loss of income also can lead to loss of health insurance. The legal and financial burdens impact marriages, spousal job options, retirement, and other family choices (eg, vacations, children’s schools, and caregiving obligations).