Whistleblower Psychology: The Experts Weigh In, Part 2


Situational properties play a major role in the motivations behind blowing the whistle. A group of Psychology and Management researchers, Drs. James Dungan, Adam Waytz and Liane Young with Boston College and Northwestern University, published a 2015 study reporting that whether a company emphasizes an atmosphere of fairness or loyalty can tip the scale toward or away from whistleblowing potential.

Increased emphasis on fairness increased whistleblowing, while increased emphasis on loyalty hindered whistleblowing.  Loyalty versus fairness determines whether employees who blow the whistle were treated as snitches or as heroes.

Psychiatrist Carole Lieberman: Motivations Change with Company Reponses

Even with the most stable and unchanging work environment, when someone chooses to blow the whistle on a company, scenarios change, people change, and motivations change throughout.

Noted Beverly Hills psychiatrist and frequent expert witness, Dr. Carole Lieberman, who has testified on both the side of the whistleblower and the side of the defense in numerous whistleblowing cases, explains how motivations vary.

“The typical scenario is that of an employee who becomes aware of fraud at his workplace, tries to tell his supervisor about it, is rebuffed and gives up for a while, until the day he is retaliated against,” Lieberman said.

“Once the company realizes there is a potential whistleblower in their midst, they want to get rid of him as quickly as possible. In their haste, the company is often very sloppy about it - dredging up alleged inadequacies in the employee’s performance and claiming that they are demoting or firing him on this basis - not the complaint he made earlier about fraud. When the whistleblower takes the company to court, it is fairly easy to prove that it was retaliation for whistleblowing.”

“Sometimes a whistleblower uses his new-found awareness of fraud as a way to hold the company for ransom - promising not to tell if the company gives him a raise or big payout. The company is stuck deciding whether it is better to try to pay off this employee or to admit the fraud publicly,” Dr. Lieberman explained.

“It is generally better to admit the fraud because it is hard to keep a whistleblower quiet, even after you pay them off. This is because (this category of) whistleblowers is not only out for money, but for attention. They want the world to know that they are the ones who brought down a big company.”

“Many whistleblowers start out simply wanting to do the right thing,” Lieberman said. “But, along the way they get more and more angry when others don’t want to correct the problem. They feel increasingly disrespected and belittled, until their whistleblowing becomes not only about doing the right thing, but about getting revenge on those who didn’t respect him.”

Leaders Breaking the Retaliation Barrier

Whatever it is that drives whistleblowers today, the landscape is changing. New research by Associate Professor of Management and Organizations, Dr. David Mayer, and Associate Dean for Executive Education, Dr. Scott DeRue, with University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business is reporting that individuals in leadership roles are becoming less and less likely to be subjected to social sanctions (insults, pressure, unfriendly behavior) for reporting unethical behavior. In some cases, leaders were actually snubbed for not reporting misconduct, and leaders who did choose to blow the whistle earned greater respect from coworkers.

But we aren’t there yet. Though higher-ups may be breaking the retaliation barrier, most employees still fear retaliation and either (a) refrain from confronting illegal activity or (b) choose to report wrongdoing externally.

One thing is certain. Individuals who choose to report illegal activity are to be celebrated. It takes a brave soul to come forward in the face of adversity. Though whistleblowers may be difficult to define, they all have strength, intelligence, resilience and selflessness in common – and inspire others to do the right thing.