6. Whistleblower mistreatment: identifying the risks

A. J. Brown and Jane Olsen

Table of Contents

Expectations of treatment and support
Risk factors for mistreatment of whistleblowers
Mistreatment by co-workers
Mistreatment by management
Against-the-odds outcomes
Positive treatment of higher-risk reporters
Negative treatment of low-risk reporters
Discussion and conclusions


The previous chapter confirmed that even when the reporting of wrongdoing is vindicated, many public interest whistleblowers experience stress and difficulty. On average, it is a minority of whistleblowers who report bad treatment from management or co-workers (between 20 and 30 per cent), but this proportion is still sizeable, has direct impacts on the willingness of others to report and in some public agencies runs to a very much higher figure. Fairness, justice and the importance of fostering a positive reporting climate dictate that it is in everyone’s interests—from whistleblowers to governments—to reduce this proportion to the lowest possible level. How is this goal best pursued?

Much of the answer lies in Part 2 of this book, which reviews the systems and procedures that public agencies currently have in place for the management of whistleblowing. Before leaving the data on the hundreds of individual whistleblowing incidents captured by this research, it is useful to mine this for a better understanding of which circumstances are most closely associated with higher levels of reprisal risk. Although mistreatment can arise in any type of whistleblowing case, clearly there are some types of cases in which the risks are generally higher. Identifying these not only helps complete the picture on the nature and impact of these types of whistleblowing outcomes, it is of practical importance in helping identify how agencies can better anticipate and manage reprisal risks.

Given the volume of whistleblowing that occurs and the fact that a large proportion can clearly be managed to a positive conclusion, it is logical that efforts to prevent and contain mistreatment should be focused on those cases involving the greatest risks. As will be seen in Chapter 9, there are currently few organised methods for assessing the risks that a reprisal will follow a particular act of whistleblowing. Moreover, it is already clear from Chapter 5 that some existing assumptions about likely sources of conflict and reprisal risk are misplaced. Effective appreciation of the risks, in individual cases, becomes important from a wide range of perspectives.

This chapter draws on the employee and internal witness surveys to identify those cases that might be considered at ‘higher risk’ of mistreatment and, in turn, the particular characteristics that contribute to the complexity of those cases. The core measure used is the third dimension studied in Chapter 5: whether respondents who reported wrongdoing said they felt themselves to have been treated well, the same or badly by management or by co-workers as a result of their whistleblowing.

The analysis is broken into three sections. First, the chapter continues an examination of the subjective elements of perceived mistreatment—in particular, the role of gaps between whistleblowers’ expectations of what will happen and what actually happens. By analysing the relationships between whistleblowers’ expectations about their treatment and the results, it is seen that employees often have expectations of positive treatment—no doubt reinforced by official efforts to encourage internal whistleblowing—that are not always met. It is also seen that this is not necessarily because the expectations are unrealistic. Whistleblowers are usually relatively accurate in self-assessing the reaction of co-workers to their disclosure, with their major problems arising in predicting the reaction of management. These results combine with those in the previous chapter to emphasise that whistleblowers are more likely to need support in navigating the management response to their disclosure, including the risk of management reprisals, than in anticipating and managing risks from co-workers. The implications of this are discussed further in the conclusion.

The second part of the chapter looks to the employee survey data to identify the ‘risk factors’ that point to circumstances in which it is more likely that a given disclosure will result in reported mistreatment. Logistic regression is used to compare public interest whistleblowers who do not report bad treatment (either from management or from co-workers) with those who do, across a range of variables. The result is a hierarchy of risk factors that agencies can use to identify those cases in which there is a higher likelihood of mistreatment. Where these factors combine, the proportion of whistleblowers who currently suffer mistreatment is very much higher than the average results indicated in Chapter 5. The key risk factors for whistleblower mistreatment by co-workers are identified, in order of significance, as:

  1. wrongdoing that is perceived as more serious

  2. lack of any positive outcome from investigation

  3. involvement of more than one person in the alleged wrongdoing

  4. situation of the whistleblower in a work group of less than 20 people.

The key risk factors for mistreatment by management are identified as:

  1. investigations that are not resolved internally and become external

  2. lack of any positive outcome from investigation

  3. wrongdoing directed at the whistleblower personally

  4. involvement of wrongdoers employed at a higher organisational level

  5. wrongdoing that is perceived as more serious and/or frequent.

The third part of this chapter reinforces this picture of reprisal risk factors, by undertaking two further comparisons. The analysis shows that a ‘higher-risk’ whistleblower could be considered to be one whose disclosure has not been substantiated and who has gone external to the organisation—yet, despite the odds, sometimes these report having been treated the same or well. What factors are associated with these cases, which do not turn out as badly as might be feared? Conversely, a ‘lower-risk’ whistleblower can be considered to be one who has been able to report internally and whose report is acted on with a positive substantive result. In theory, such whistleblowers should be easier for management to protect, however, some still report mistreatment, prompting the question: what crucial factors turn this potential success into a failure? These analyses confirm the salience of the factors listed above, providing new guidance on the processes that public agencies can use to better assess, reduce and manage the risks of whistleblower mistreatment.