Whistleblowers are vital, so why are they hated so much?

12 June 2015

While society depends upon courageous individuals to alert the public to financial fraud, abuse in institutions and potential environmental disasters, whistleblowers should be prepared to be ostracised and even hated by society not ready for their revelations, according to new research.

In spite of this, many of the whistleblowers told a conference entitled Speaking Out in banking and finance industry in England and Ireland: What makes it possible? and hosted by Warwick Business School they would do it again.

The conference saw whistleblowers reveal their experience combined with the latest research from Marianna Fotaki, of Warwick Business School and Kate Kenny, of Queens University plus talks from Whistleblowers UK, as well as the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA), Public Concern at Work (PCaW) and Transparency International.

Professor Fotaki said her research had found whistleblowers to be very loyal staff and had the company’s best interests at heart.

Kate Kenny presents her findings at WBS Whistleblower event
Spilling the beans: Kate Kenny presents her findings at WBS Whistleblower event

However, they were persecuted from all sides when they revealed publicly what was going on even as the institutions and the public benefitted from their disclosure.

“We found whistleblowers were often some of the most loyal staff, with extremely high ethics,” Professor Fotaki told the conference.

“They just couldn’t understand why they then found themselves threatened and retaliated against. 

"Ultimately words cannot do justice to what many whistleblowers go through.

"For the whistleblowers they suddenly found their lives in limbo, their world destroyed, no job and virtually unwanted by other employers.

“One important thing our research revealed was the idea of self-perception – many within banking and financing felt they were just doing their job and not being a hero as such.

“We wanted to know who whistleblows? Why do they do it? How does it happen? What do they face? And what can they do after whistleblowing?”

Most of us turn a blind eye

Dr David Morgan, a Psychoanalyst for Whistleblowers UK, revealed the impact of whistleblowing on people’s health and the psychological trauma many of them go through.

Dr Morgan, who has worked with upwards of 200 whistleblowers from all industries and believes corruption can be found at all levels of society, read the poem First they Came by Pastor Martin Niemöller, a criticism of German intellectuals following the Nazis’ rise to power, to illustrate the importance of whistleblowers.

He added: “The reality is whistleblowers are hated. From a personal point of view, they make me aware about a reality I don’t want to know about. And the reality is, there is corruption around at every level of our society.

“Most of us turn a blind eye. It’s a good way of surviving, you get to keep your job, you might feel guilty but you can forget about it.

“That is our problem. There is a whole group conscious of not facing things, not facing reality. Whistleblowers are the ones brave enough or foolish enough to put themselves in the firing line and challenge this.

“Most whistleblowers are not like (Julian) Assange or (Edward) Snowden – narcissistic perhaps – most people I’ve seen are very different. They’ve lost everything. Pensions lost, mortgages and jobs lost, careers destroyed, their esteem in the community lost, and from a psychological point of view peace of mind is lost.

“One aspect of social disclosure – what I prefer over the term whistleblower - often underestimated is the emotional fall-out. Such disclosers are recipients of hostility from a variety of quarters. I can tell you from my own experience, whistleblowers have been driven mad by a corrupt part of society.

“What can we do to help them? Simply, it is important to keep hope alive in a world that utterly feels hopeless alive.”

Ian Foxley, who blew the lid on a contractor hired by the UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) paying millions of dollars in bribePanel of whistleblowers discuss how to help others in their situations to officials in Saudi Arabia’s National Guard, said support is needed for whistleblowers like himself.

“Three main things are needed,” said Mr Foxley. “One: a trusted independent legal authority who could give you clear advice. Two, therapeutic counselling because we are damaged, and thirdly, more media support.

“The media have a great part to play with whistleblowers. The individual versus an organisation and the imbalance in resources makes it an unfair battle. It is a war of reputations; they destroy your professional and personal reputation, so how on earth can you take on one of the biggest companies in the world? Access to trusted journalists is vital.”

Without the media, whistleblowers have no voice

Michael Winston, who blew the lid on institutionalised fraud at mortgage brokers Countrywide, concurred and suggested that without the media, whistleblowers have no voice. Martin Woods, who uncovered Wachovia – one of the US’ biggest banks before disappearing in the financial crisis – money laundering for drug traffickers, added whistleblowers need to prepare to be hated.

Mr Foxley said: “Ultimately, we need an environment where whistleblowers are not scared to declare any wrongdoings. The problem is, if you blow the whistle and you’re identified, at present you are victimised, you are bullied you are intimidated.

“There should be a duty on the organisation to protect your identity. We propose an office of whistleblower to deal with this.

“We want to help operate a helpline system, for people asking ‘how can I get support?’ While at the top level we need to be speaking to politicians and gaining political support to change legislation to protect and enforce rules.”

Wendy Addison, the former international treasurer of LeisureNet who blew the lid on fraud at the firm, has researched how organisations should deal with whistleblowers.

She said: “We need to leverage change within an organisation, by changing internal behaviour we can help people avoid the whistleblower route. There is too much focus on the messenger, the whistleblower. We need to shift perspective to the leader.

Jeremy Tizard presents FCA facts
A helping hand: Jeremy Tizard presents FCA facts and figures

“Most of us expect leaders have a very sound, robust sense of self-worth.

"We don’t believe they require constant self-worth and appraisal as we do.

“But in fact, whistleblowers can undermine their leadership position and make them question their own leadership.

"Pointing out misconduct is not received kindly, it is a reminder to them they may not be so confident in their role as a leader. It’s almost saying look what I’m doing, something you could and should have done – it creates hostility.”

Whistleblowing cases increasing

Jeremy Tizard, Senior Associate, Whistleblowing and Intelligence, at the FCA said the number of whistleblower cases had risen to 1,376 in 2014 compared to 276 in 2009.

The sectors where the most cases were recorded were financial advisers with 277 and consumer credit with 163.

Other sectors with a large amount of complaints from whistleblowers were retail insurance and financial markets, with money laundering and pressure on sale staff frequently cited.

Intelligence from the whistleblowers covered everything from rigging Libor – the inter-bank lending rate - and foreign exchange rates, boiler rooms - where fraudsters cold-call investors offering them worthless, overpriced or even non-existent shares –  investment scams and tax evasion.

Concluding panel of Whistleblowing conference
Moving forward: Whistleblowing event final panel (L to R) Steve Lennon, Journalist Timon Molloy and Brian Little
Whistleblowers play a vital role

Steve Lennon, who blew the whistle on procurement fraud at a High Street bank that lead to a nine-month covert investigation ending three careers as well as his own, said: “I’m living proof there can be life after whistleblowing after surviving whistleblowing on a high street bank and some pretty unpleasant mental health issues.

“I was given a settlement, of course it was nowhere near what my future earning power would be, as I’m now unemployable because of a four-year gap on my CV, but I have survived.”

We, as society, need to know more about the costs these brave individuals pay and find ways to help them survive post-disclosure because whistleblowers play a vital role is protecting the public interest, the conference concluded.    

Marianna Fotaki teaches on a range of topics including Business in Society on the Executive MBA, Business, Politics, Society and Behaviour on the full-time MBA, Governance and Corporate Responsibility on the MSc Management and Corporate Social Responsibility and Business Ethics on the MSc Business suite.

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