5. The good, the bad and the ugly: whistleblowing outcomes

Rodney Smith and A. J. Brown[1]

Table of Contents

A note on the data
Substantive outcomes, including organisational changes
Whistleblower satisfaction
Overall treatment of whistleblowers
Deliberate mistreatment and reprisals
General impacts on whistleblowers
Discussion and conclusions


Public perceptions of the outcomes of whistleblowing are undoubtedly shaped by the mythic tales of triumph and failure presented in the news media and retold in popular films and books (see, for example, Dempster 1997). As previous chapters have already suggested, however, experiences of public sector whistleblowing are more diverse than popular stereotypes allow. This point holds for the outcomes that flow from whistleblowing.

The different outcomes of whistleblowing are interrelated in complex ways. Defining outcomes as good or bad will depend on which outcomes and whose perspectives are acknowledged. Consider the following statement from a respondent to the internal witness survey, whose report ultimately resulted in successful prosecution of wrongdoers:

This incident has done nothing for my career in this organisation as I have tended to just stay in low-key positions and away from the stress of finding fraud again. Basically, I have withdrawn and taken on interests outside my work that involve me in more interesting projects and life experiences. Yet my experience could have been a lot worse, such as, conspiracy within the organisation or management not taking it seriously. It [was] the biggest fraud this organisation has experienced. Part of me is proud to have had the courage to report it, part of me doesn’t want to know about it.

In this example, the outcome for the organisation was good, while the outcome for the whistleblower was mixed. The whistleblower’s report was vindicated, the whistleblower was not harmed and management acted well. The whistleblower, however, felt ambivalent about the outcome and changed their behaviour and career goals in response to the experience and stresses of reporting.

This chapter will show that a greater understanding of the complex interrelationships between different types of outcomes is pivotal in understanding how whistleblowing might be better managed within organisations of the types studied here. The chapter explores good and bad outcomes of whistleblowing across five dimensions: 1) substantive outcomes, including organisational changes resulting from investigations into employee reports of wrongdoing; 2) the satisfaction of individual whistleblowers with the results of the investigation process; 3) the overall treatment of whistleblowers by others in the organisation; 4) deliberate mistreatment or reprisals; and 5) more general impacts on whistleblowers’ lives and careers.

The results show that for the first of these dimensions, the results of whistleblowing are frequently positive. Most whistleblowers have their disclosure investigated and, in most cases in which investigation occurs, in the view of whistleblowers themselves this leads to at least some improved outcomes in the organisation. While the results vary depending on the type of wrongdoing reported, they are consistent with the evidence given in Chapter 2 about the value generally placed on whistleblowing in public sector organisations. They are also consistent with the findings in Chapter 3 that public employees are more likely to blow the whistle when they are confident that action can and will be taken in response.

The results for the second dimension—whistleblower satisfaction with results of the investigation process—indicate some reasons why the outcomes can readily become mixed. Whistleblowers are likely to be satisfied with the handling of their disclosure only if the investigation vindicates them and they are kept informed of the process. These data demonstrate the difficulty that organisations have in acknowledging the value of whistleblowing at a case-by-case level. This misunderstanding is often due to misaligned understandings between whistleblowers and responsible managers and case-handlers about the issues of greatest importance in the management of whistleblowing processes. In addition, the chances of improved outcomes increase only marginally with further investigations, which is currently the response sought by whistleblowers if an initial investigation appears unhelpful. These results reinforce those from Chapters 3 and 4, which are that unless the initial investigative and management responses to disclosures are well managed, a cycle of distrust and dissatisfaction can begin from which it is difficult to recover. These results point to ways in which organisations can help prevent and reduce the conflicts that can flow from whistleblowing.

The feasibility of managing the response to whistleblowing well is demonstrated by results on the third dimension: the overall treatment of whistleblowers. On average, most public interest whistleblowers (at least 70 per cent) are treated either well or the same by management and co-workers in their organisation. This crucial finding challenges assumptions that whistleblowers are always destined to suffer as a result of their experience and helps to confirm that it is possible for organisations and whistleblowers to emerge with broadly positive outcomes.

This result also holds three sobering lessons. First, contrary to a common assumption, when whistleblowers are treated badly, this mistreatment is much more likely to come from management than from colleagues or co-workers. Second, achieving a good or neutral outcome depends greatly on the circumstances, including the type of wrongdoing and the organisational relationships involved, but also the management approach of the agency. In some organisations surveyed, the proportion of whistleblowers indicating bad treatment by management fell close to zero; in others, it rose to up to 46 per cent. Third, higher levels of perceived mistreatment have direct impacts on the reporting climate in organisations, a result consistent with the findings of Chapter 3. While the majority of whistleblowers say they would report again, the number decreases steadily among those who say they were treated badly. These findings raise important questions throughout the rest of the book.

This chapter provides further evidence of the nature of deliberate mistreatment or reprisals suffered by whistleblowers. When this occurs, it is most often intimidation, harassment, heavy scrutiny of work, ostracism, unsafe or humiliating work and other workplace-based negative behaviour. The findings here are based not simply on whistleblower experiences, but on the first data ever collected on this issue from case-handlers and managers. The evidence from case-handlers and managers also points to preventing mistreatment by management as typically a more crucial challenge than control of individual co-worker reprisals.

Finally, the chapter looks at a fifth dimension: the more general impacts of whistleblowing on whistleblowers’ lives and careers. This analysis helps to explain the type of mixed outcome described at the start of the chapter. It indicates that even those whistleblowers who experience no active mistreatment and emerge broadly positive nevertheless often feel less trusting of the organisation as a result of the process and suffer the negative impacts of increased stress and anxiety, which can themselves lead to other preventable conflicts and problems. Maximum estimates of the proportion of public interest whistleblowers who currently suffer significant negative impacts, on this broader measure, range to more than 40 per cent. Exactly which circumstances are more likely to give rise to negative impacts, and the effectiveness of current strategies for addressing these, are topics for later chapters.

[1] The authors thank Lindy Annakin and Jane Olsen for assistance with analyses in this chapter.