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Whistleblowing

By: LeAnn Beaty, Ph.D., MPA director and professor  

Whistleblowing is a hot topic these days. A whistleblower is someone, typically an employee, who discloses information, either internally (to managers, organizational hotlines, etc.) or externally (to lawmakers, regulators, the media, watchdog organizations, etc.), that he or she reasonably believes evidences:

  • a violation of law, rule or regulation;
  • gross mismanagement;
  • a gross waste of funds;
  • abuse of authority; or
  • a substantial and specific danger to public health or safety.[1]

On August 12, an unnamed whistleblower filed a complaint citing conversations between President Trump and Ukrainian officials alleging that the President was using the power of his office to solicit interference from a foreign country in the 2020 election.[2] Consequently, impeachment inquiries have swirled around the President. Trump expressed disgust with the whistleblower and the ensuing fallout, suggesting it amounts to treason. While the U.S. government and many states have enacted laws designed to protect whistleblowers from retaliation, this still unfolding story revives the need to explain why the act of whistleblowing is risky and hence, whistleblowers should exercise caution.   

Whistleblower groups, warns James Svara in Chapter 8 of his Ethics Primer for Public Administrators (2nd ed.) text, should urge officials to beware of the risks and costs associated with whistleblowing. Retaliation may take the following forms (2015, p. 149):[3]

  • Spotlight the whistleblower, making the whistleblower, instead of the message, the issue.
  • Manufacture a poor record.
  • Threaten them into silence.
  • Isolate or humiliate them.
  • Set them up for failure.
  • Prosecute them.
  • Eliminate their jobs, paralyze their careers, or fire the whistleblower.

Before considering whistleblowing, Svara encourages the individual to create a support network to provide personal and professional support. He offers a set of ten tips for potential whistleblowers (Ibid, pp. 151):

  1. Consult your loved ones. Before taking any steps, talk to your spouse, family or close friends.
  2. Check for skeletons in your closet. Personal vulnerabilities may be used against you; make a complete copy of your personnel file so that backdated “dirt” cannot be slipped in.
  3. Document, document, document. Keep detailed records and a daily diary of relevant events; maintain a backup of all documents outside work in a safe place.
  4. Do not use government resources. Do not engage in whistleblowing activities during work hours unless you have specific approval such as through a union collective bargaining agreement.
  5. Check to see, if anyone, will support your account. Look for others who are willing to testify as a supporting witness.
  6. Consult an attorney early. Do not wait until you are in crisis mode before seeking professional help.
  7. Choose your battles. Pick key battlegrounds; do not focus on small details.
  8. Identify allies. Create a coalition of supporters such as sympathetic interest groups, elected officials or the media.
  9. Have a well thought-out plan. Be clear on what you expect to accomplish and how.
  10. Get yourself career counseling. Map out where your actions will leave you 1, 2 and 5 years from now.

In summary, whistleblowers should proceed cautiously and strategically if they become aware of a problem within an organization. Even when there are whistleblower protections in place, concludes Svara, their actions can lead to reprisals, both formal and informal. For public administrators, the best defense is to try and elevate the ethical climate in any organization by being receptive to those who identify problems and committed to taking positive corrective action (Ibid., p. 159).


[1] Government Accountability Project, retrieved 10/4/19 https://www.whistleblower.org/resources/

[3] Svara draws his retaliation tips and tips for potential whistleblowers from presentations by the Government Accountability Project, Project on Government Oversight, and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.

Published on October 11, 2019