10 Oct “Whistleblowers are In the Air,” by Andrew Malekoff, Blank Slate Media, October 5, 2019
Despite the contentious politics that the public is exposed to on a daily basis, there are valuable lessons to be learned.
For example, I wonder how many working people are fully aware that they have whistle-blower protections and what they are.
Their only exposure, until most recently, may have been to whistleblowers that have been popularized in films like On the Waterfront, Serpico, All the President’s Men, Silkwood, and Erin Brockovich, to name just a few that might ring a bell.
As the executive director of a nonprofit children’s mental health agency, it is my responsibility to make sure that we have a whistleblower policy.
This is to ensure that all employees understand the organization’s commitment to prohibiting intimidation, harassment, discrimination or other retaliation for reporting actions that are illegal, unethical, and fraudulent or in violation of any organization policy.
According to Tim Barnett, a professor in the Department of Management and Information Systems at Mississippi State University, whistleblowing policies should have the following components as a minimum:
1. A clear statement that employees who are aware of possible wrongdoing within the organization have a responsibility to disclose that information to appropriate parties inside the organization;
2. The designation of specific individuals or groups outside the chain of command as complaint recipients;
3. A guarantee that employees who in good faith disclose perceived wrongdoing to the designated parties inside the organization will be protected from adverse employment consequences; and
4. The establishment of a fair and impartial investigative process.
The Whistleblower Protection Act that was signed into law by President George W. Bush in 1989 extends the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978 to offer protections to federal government employees from retaliatory action for voluntarily disclosing information about dishonest or illegal activities occurring in a government organization.
If you follow the news you know that a federal employee – a whistleblower, recently filed a complaint involving the president’s phone call with the Ukrainian president. The President denies that any wrongdoing occurred. He is entitled to a fair hearing. Congress is investigating.
In the meantime, the President has asked, “why aren’t we entitled to interview and learn everything about the whistleblower and also the person who gave all of the false information to him?” That’s a fair question. The simple answer is because it would be a violation of the protections detailed in the law.
According to University of South Carolina professor Xuhong Su, “anonymity is of paramount importance for both protecting whistleblowers, but also in the long run, to incentivize more acting whistleblowers along the road.”
The president went on to say that the whistleblower is “almost a spy” and made reference to how spies were dealt with in the past. He didn’t spell it out, but spies were subject to long prison sentences or execution.
In fact, in 1971 when U.S. military analyst Daniel Ellsberg released the Pentagon Papers, exposing decision making regarding the Vietnam War, he was charged under the Espionage Act of 1917 and faced 115 years in prison. The charges were later dismissed.
Imagine if a whistleblower at my workplace filed a report against me for some wrongdoing and when I learned of it if I announced, “I want that person in my office ASAP so I can get to the bottom of this.”
Although I’ve never been the subject of a whistleblower report, it would be most disconcerting to have someone unknown to me, report me for some alleged wrongdoing. Nevertheless, agency policy would prohibit me from doing anything other than waiting for a fair hearing.
I’m sure I would be upset and probably angry. And, I would wonder who made the report. I would likely speculate. I might have some fantasies about what to do about it. I’d like to think that I’d wait out the investigation. Would I make a death threat? I don’t think so.
Andrew Malekoff is the Executive director of North Shore Child & Family Guidance Center, which provides comprehensive mental health services for children from birth through 24 and their families. To find out more, call (516) 626-1971 or visit www.northshorechildguidance.org.