They say no good deed goes unpunished and sadly that is the truth in the world of the whistleblower. The theory on ‘whistle blowing’ is that the individual is helping the community, and following their ethics, by reporting the offending person or company. The risk of recrimination is very high and usually results in a long and difficult fight for the whistleblower. This battle will likely including legal threats and character assassination.
So what can you do to protect yourself when you do blow the whistle? Having been through this process I have gain some insight on how best to handle the situation.
1. Documentation: Once you suspect that something is wrong you should begin documenting. Start by taking notes in a log book or note pad. This information will be helpful when you need to tell your story and will provide the detail needed to track down further evidence of wrong-doing. Next, start collecting pertinent documents. The best way is to copy documents (photocopy, computers docs, etc.). When you think you have enough, double it. Pictures, phone recordings, documents, conversations, e-mails are all important and should be noted when possible. There can never be enough documentation. Once the authorities begin investigation documents had a tendency to disappear.
Many people who don’t know the laws will try to tell you that these methods are illegal. The fact is they are not. In Canada it is legal to record a conversation or phone call as long as one of the parties is participating in the conversation. The removal of documents from the workplace is a gray area. Under normal circumstances removing company information is illegal, however when it is evidence it can be collected. In a Canadian court all evidence will be considered. Check with your government’s laws or speak with a lawyer before taking any risks.
2. Minimize Your Exposure: When you draw up the courage, and support, to finally report the issues there are a few things you need to do. First, it is best if you stay at your job while you report the issues. Sometimes the authorities will ask you questions, that will help them with their investigation, and being at the location is beneficial. Ask to be kept anonymous, if possible, but sometimes this can’t be done. Next, get your resume polished up and start sending it out. Then prepare financially by locating your employment insurance office. Tell them that you are blowing the whistle on your employer and you may be fired for it. Provide the person with the contact names of whichever authority you contacted. The idea is to build a rapport, so if bad things happen, people will know the facts. Don’t loose that all important safety net.
3. Go with your Instincts: Most people will tell you not to blow the whistle because there are no winners. They are partially right, but without your courage people will get hurt, the rich will get richer and abuse their powers. You can change that by doing what you feel it right. We often cloud our thinking with other people’s perceptions, but only you can determine what to do. Most of the time your instinct are right and you should trust them. If you listen to others and they convince not to go with your instincts, and then something bad happens, you have to live with the consequences, not them.
4. Be Patient: Nothing happens quickly no matter how fast you want to be done with it. The reality is that things will go much slower than you ever expected them too. The best way to make sure things are moving is to do some research. For example, if you file a complaint against a medical professional, the regulatory College that receives the complaint will have a complaints process. However, this is usually regulated by a government agency that has legislation regarding complaints. In Ontario all complaints must be handled in 120 days. If not, you can contact the Health Professions Appeal & Review Board and they will contact the College and accelerate the process.
Some other tips to accelerate the process include contacting your local politician, begin a letter writing campaign to media outlets and compiling your story onto an internet site. Be persistent when dealing with each agency, don’t accept their statements at face value and always follow up.
5. The Media is Not a Solution: They can help but you have to convince them to write the story. Many times it may take months for them to move. Remember they don’t want any liability, they are a profit-motivated company and will only publish story’s that make them a dollar. If your former employer is litigious, they will probably be too scared to publish. The media has no problem reporting history, so once a final verdict is reached, by the authorities, they will write a story. Unfortunately it will be to late to help you.
Some of the smaller media outlets may be more willing to help you. Take a look at freelance writers, who may spend more time working on your story and getting the facts. They also have the contacts you need to get it published.
6. Prepare for an Attack on your Character and Legal Threats :: The person or company you are dealing with will not let things go easily. The first response will be to discredit you. If you look like an disgruntled employee or someone with a vendetta then your story will be less believable. It’s easy for the person or company to do this. If they were unethical to start with, it’s not a huge leap for them start lying about you after you report them. There isn’t much you can do except try to disprove they’re statements. Use the document you gathered to clearly show that they are the guilty party and you were just being ethical. In the end your efforts will be recognized. You will probably receive a cease and desist letter, don’t be overly concerned as this is most likely posturing. If you are worried, speak with a lawyer.
7. Use Lawyers Sparingly: Nobody can fight with the passion you have and no lawyer will ever put the amount of effort you already have into your fight. Replying to a cease and desist letter is easy, just stick with the facts, provide the evidence and take the high road. Most lawyers will act like an 600 lb gorilla, your job is to be bigger. In all likelihood they won’t want to take this issue to a public forum, like a court room, especially if you have documented the case very well. That would give you a perfect opportunity to invite the media and lay your case out. Examples of cease and desist responses can be found at http://www.snakeoil.ca.
If you need legal advice, get it, but don’t let the lawyer bleed you dry. Have your questions prepared on paper and sit down with the lawyer and discuss the issue. If they charge a minimum of one hour time, use it all. One good thing to do is prepare a short summary of the facts in your case, and fax it in to the law office. Don’t ask question in the letter. Blowing the whistle is stressful enough without having thousands of dollars in legal fees.
Some people will tell you not to let the event consume you. If it does consume you, it will affect other parts of your life. But sometimes focussing your energy can be better if it will resolve the issue quicker. It’s better to throw your whole heart into the matter, rather than fight with yourself. It is difficult to not be consumed. My advice is to simply go with it. The harder you work the quicker the issue will be resolved and the sooner you can get on with your life.
The is no reward for doing a good deed, that’s only in movies. In the end however you should have the satisfaction that you made your community or country a better place. People will respect you for your efforts and hopefully inspire then to do something good and that is a reward in itself.
Darcy O’Neil is a chemical technologist who became a pharmaceutical whistleblower. His experiences, including the evidence, legal threats and decisions can be found at http://www.snakeoil.ca. Darcy is currently working as a bartender and a freelance writer.