Debunking Whistleblower Myths

Stigmas, myths, and falsehoods follow whistleblowers and the laws that protect them. In order to sift through these myths, the National Whistleblower Center provides a guide debunking some of these claims about whistleblowers.

Does a whistleblower need to have first-hand information to come forward with a complaint?

  • In general, whistleblower laws do not require a whistleblower to present first-hand information; authorities are interested in hearing from anyone who has a reasonable belief of wrongdoing. In fact, second-hand reports may be more credible, according to a study in the Harvard Business Review, as they are more likely to identify critical issues that implicate other employees and tend to have less emotion and bias associated.

Are whistleblowers required to sacrifice their careers in order to disclose wrongdoing?

  • Although many whistleblowers have suffered significant harm to their careers as a result of exposing wrongdoing by powerful figures in government or industry, measures can be taken to minimize the risk of this outcome. Most whistleblower laws provide mechanisms by which whistleblowers can disclose information about wrongdoing to authorities while keeping their identities confidential.

Do whistleblowers need to publicly identify themselves to prove their credibility?

  • Whistleblowers have no obligation to identify themselves to the public to prove they are credible witnesses.  Investigators who receive whistleblowers’ complaints can evaluate their credibility against other evidence that is collected. In many cases, whistleblowers can keep their identities confidential throughout the entire course of the investigation. Whistleblowers should consult with a qualified attorney on whether and how they can maintain confidentiality under the particular circumstances of their case.

If someone with knowledge of misconduct has biases towards the wrongdoer, would that disqualify them from whistleblower protection?

  • No whistleblower law disqualifies an individual from protection simply because they have biases toward the individual or company accused of misconduct. In fact, in 2012, Congress updated the Whistleblower Protection Act (governing federal employee whistleblowers) to explicitly state that an employee cannot lose protection for making a disclosure due to the employee’s motive for making the disclosure. This makes sense – those who are proven to have engaged in misconduct should not be allowed to escape accountability by “shooting the messenger.”

Were the rules for intelligence community whistleblowers changed to accommodate the Ukraine whistleblower?

  • Some allies of President Trump have asserted that whistleblower rules were violated to accommodate the whistleblower who notified the Inspector General of the Intelligence Community of the President’s alleged effort to solicit foreign interference in the 2020 election. According to this theory, the rules once required that only first-hand information be submitted but, to accommodate the Ukraine whistleblower, the disclosure form was altered to allow second-hand information. This is incorrect. Although minor alterations were made to the form, it was not altered to allow second-hand information for the first time. Second-hand information was always permitted.

Aren’t whistleblowers just out for the reward money?

  • Blowing the whistle on fraud, waste, and abuse can be a dangerous undertaking. Many times, whistleblowers do not receive rewards, but lose their jobs and are unable to return to their industry. A study on corporate fraud whistleblowers from the University of Chicago Booth School of Economics found that disclosing misconduct in the workplace is typically retaliated against even in cases when it is ultimately rewarded. Reward laws are therefore needed to incentivize whistleblowing that would otherwise be deterred due to likely retaliation. Research also shows that people typically blow the whistle “despite the risk of personal costs in order to uphold moral principles or values.” Thus, while rewards provide a crucial safety net to protect whistleblowers in the event of retaliation, the main impetus to blow the whistle is usually the desire to right wrongs and expose injustice.

What are a whistleblower’s motivations when coming forward?

  • Whistleblowers typically have a mix of motivations, oftentimes a blend of a desire to see justice done about their own personal situation as well as to advance the public interest. Wrongdoers frequently attack the motives of their accusers and attempt to destroy their reputations (a common tactic to distract attention away from their own behavior). For this reason, the focus of the investigation should be on the evidence, not the whistleblower’s motivation. Whistleblowers’ allegations should always be investigated by unbiased authorities, with the whistleblower’s evidence evaluated against all of the other relevant evidence in the case. That is the best way to determine whether the evidence is credible.

Do rewards for whistleblowers incentivize false reports and frivolous lawsuits?

  • No, the Booth School of Economics study found that, “[t]here is no evidence that having stronger monetary incentives to blow the whistle leads to more frivolous suits.” This makes sense – the only way to prevail in a claim for a whistleblower reward is to be right about wrongdoing.

What is the difference between a whistleblower vs. a leaker?

  • A leaker is a term used, often pejoratively, to describe someone who goes outside the formal channels of disclosure provided by the law. NWC strongly recommends that whistleblowers consult with an attorney before taking this route; if this route is taken, the legal protections against retaliation would be sacrificed and criminal or civil sanctions could potentially be imposed. That said, working with the media to release non-classified information to the public is a fundamental right protected by the 1stAmendment and is often warranted to ensure that matters of urgent public concern are addressed.

Can you receive a financial reward for contributing to a successful prosecution even if you are not employed by the organization that is accused of wrongdoing?

  • A common misconception is that you must be an employee of the organization about which you are blowing the whistle to become eligible for a reward. In fact, whistleblower reward statutes do not include such restrictions. Laws such as the False Claims Act and Dodd-Frank Act make individuals eligible for rewards when they disclose original information about wrongdoing that otherwise would not be known, and that information leads to a successful prosecution. Law enforcement officials take into account the value of the whistleblower’s contribution to the prosecution in deciding what share of the monetary sanctions to give to the whistleblower as a reward.

Can you receive a financial reward for contributing to a successful prosecution even if you are not a U.S. citizen?

  • Another common misconception is that you must be a U.S. citizen to become eligible for a reward under U.S. whistleblower law. In fact, whistleblower reward statutes do not include such restrictions. Law enforcement officials are interested in evidence of wrongdoing regardless of the source of that evidence.

To read more about these and other common whistleblower myths, read The New Whistleblower’s Handbook, the first-ever guide to whistleblowing, by the nation’s leading whistleblower attorney. The Handbook is a step-by-step guide to the essential tools for successfully blowing the whistle, qualifying for financial rewards, and protecting yourself.  

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