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Guest blog: Recognising whistleblower victimisation

If you are reading this, the chances are that you have just become, or are thinking about becoming, a whistleblower or know a whistleblower

You may have uncovered wrongdoing in your workplace. You may have asked for it to be addressed or are thinking of speaking up, but are worried that you will be subject to harm, detriment or retaliation.

Unfortunately, far too many whistleblowers suffer life changing detriment by employers. Protect, the UK whistleblowing charity, is seeking reform that will see employers sanctioned and penalised for victimising whistleblowers who speak up in the workplace. Its campaign, ‘Let’s Fix UK Whistleblowing Law’ calls for reform of the UK’s whistleblowing law, the Public Interest Act 1998, to bring in universal whistleblowing systems in all workplaces – currently it is only sectors which are heavily regulated such as finance and health care which are required to have whistleblowing arrangements, e.g., a suitable policy, hotline and a whistleblowing ambassador in place.

All over the world, more and more governments are becoming alive to the value that whistleblowers can add, by reporting corruption, and legal and regulatory breaches. Whistleblowers have prevented crime, damage and losses, on an unimaginable scale.

Some have reported breaches of basic safety standards in nuclear settings, and thus have saved countless lives. Others have reported: fraud in major finance companies, rigged pollution emissions software, abuse in refugee detention centres, sexual abuse in religious organisations, long-standing charity misgovernance…

Yet, whistleblowers are currently performing a thankless public duty.  Many will be targeted, harassed, intimidated, bullied and subjected to all sorts of false accusations by the wrong doers, if they blow the whistle.

In the early stages, as the legitimate concerns are being internally raised, a common technique is “gaslighting.”

Gaslighting is the process where an offender or wrong doer persuades the victim or the person raising concerns that it is the victim’s fault:

“You only think that because you have not completed your induction.

“You don’t understand how things work here.

“You are not in possession of all the facts.

“It is this way for reasons that I cannot share with you.

“You are misinterpreting.

“You are needlessly rocking the boat.

“The last person who raised that spurious issue isn’t here any more.“

If gaslighting doesn’t work, the wrong-doers then engage in the three Ds: Denial, Deflection, Defamation.

  • They claim the legitimate concerns are false, even when, by that time the evidence is usually in the hands of the authorities.
  • “This is a misinterpretation, problems of the past, all is well now, nothing to see here, it was caused by… “
  • “The whistle-blower is the real problem, they are (insert the false accusation of choice here).” 

Many whistleblowers will find the following happens to them:

  • legitimate concerns are presented as “bullying.”
  • public interest disclosure is framed as a “breach of confidence.”
  • reporting to the authorities is presented as a “failure to abide by collective decisions.”
  • requests to address the wrong doing are packaged as a failure to “get along and fit in”

The sequences of steps used by wrong-doers, offenders, and toxic people in an attempt to avoid being held to account have been summarised as “DARVO” by Dr Jennifer Freyd, a prominent psychologist: Deny, Accuse, Reverse Victim and Offender. For more detailed information:

A whistleblower will be told :

You are wrong, you are bad, you are… [insert accusation of offence].”

Challenges to wrong-doing are presented as wrong-doing. For example:

  • You are intimidating and harassing me.”
  • Your messages are harassing and hurtful to me.”
  • By reporting that you are breaching your duty of confidentiality, and thus breaching your contract.”
  • If you don’t agree with what we are doing you are breaching your duty of collective responsibility, and as such ought to resign.”
  • You are breaching your obligation to protect the reputation of our organisation.”

Many whistle-blowers report words to the effect of: “I feel as though I have done wrong for doing right.”

That is hardly surprising given that so many have their careers ended for taking steps to protect the public.

Whistleblowers act to protect the public from wrong doers. Yet, currently, career ending detriment, a life-time of unemployability, mental health problems, and worse is what happens to many who have the courage and integrity to expose organisational wrong doing.

Whistleblowers need public support to be protected from the wrong-doers. We are beginning to see some changes as many people are choosing to work only in organisations that have a strong ESG (Environmental, Social & Governance) culture, which takes whistleblowing seriously.

We should all back Protect’s Let’s Fix UK Whistleblowing Law which hopes to end whistleblower victimisation and transform whistleblowing culture in the workplace.

Prof Nigel MacLennan, provides leadership coaching and psychotherapy for executives