People who realize that their employer is engaged in unlawful and potentially harmful conduct must make a difficult choice. Standing up for your fellow human beings is never easy. It becomes doubly difficult when your ability to do what you know is right comes from the fact that you have inside knowledge of some sort of misconduct.
If you were trusted with that knowledge, disclosing it to an outside party can seem like a betrayal. You must consider the potential benefits and drawbacks not only to society, but also to yourself.
Why Should You Become a Whistleblower?
There are several reasons why you should become a whistleblower. The primary reason is to protect your fellow men and women. If the conduct is particularly harmful, such as illegal dumping or fraud targeting the medical industry or military applications, lives may be at stake. Put yourself in the victims’ shoes; if you or your family members were the ones in danger from toxic chemicals or defective products, would you appreciate someone with the authority to stop the threat simply dismissing the situation as being someone else’s problem?
Mitigating your own liability should also be a goal. In the event that the unlawful conduct is uncovered, the parties who initiated it will be prosecuted. However, the parties who continued to facilitate the conduct long after it began are also criminally and civilly liable. At best, you may work out a deal to testify in exchange for immunity. By blowing the whistle on criminal activity, you distance yourself from the illegal conduct. This is something best achieved with the assistance of legal counsel.
Financial gain may also be possible. Reporting certain types of unlawful activities targeting the government can entitle whistleblowers to a percentage of the government’s recovery. The False Claims Act of 1863 entitles persons who uncover certain frauds against the government to initiate a qui tam action on behalf of the government to recover treble damages.
While there are strict limitations on how these suits can proceed, a successful action can result in a significant windfall to the plaintiff. Similarly, the Internal Revenue Service offers rewards for reporting tax violators.
Why Should You Remain Silent?
Despite any proclamations to the contrary, whistleblowers are rarely treated well in government or in private industry. Blowing the whistle on illegal conduct is likely to result in professional retribution including termination or reassignment to undesirable positions.
Social alienation is also probable, as co-workers, supervisors, and subordinates prefer to deal with someone that they can trust to keep their dealings confidential. The fact that these dealings are illegal and dangerous rarely matters in such environments.
When Should you Blow-the-Whistle?
As discussed previously, blowing the whistle on illegal conduct can distance you from that conduct. If handled improperly, it can also place you at the center of the illegal conduct. If you had a substantial role in planning or facilitating the illegal conduct, you may be criminally liable for the offending conduct even if you come forward. This is a key reason why you should always consult a whistleblower attorney before coming forward to the government if you had a role in the illegal conduct.
This is of particular concern if you had a role in another type of unlawful conduct. Mark Whitacre famously served a longer sentence than his colleagues in a price-fixing scheme at Archer Daniels Midland after he was convicted of unrelated financial crimes against his employer. If you are engaged in any other sort of questionable conduct and the perpetrators of unlawful conduct have knowledge of it, your claim may be compromised.
The nature of the conduct will determine whether you should become a whistleblower. If the crimes are so great that they threaten lives or if innocent people are being victimized on a widespread scale, it may be worthwhile to step forward even at personal risk of social alienation and possible criminal charges.
If the conduct is isolated to a small group of employees and is relatively minor in nature, dealing with it internally will usually produce better results. If you are concerned about the consequences of blowing the whistle on illegal conduct, consult with a whistleblower attorney in your area before doing anything else.
With whistleblowing featuring heavily in the media in recent years, author Georgina Clatworthy has written extensively on the subject. In her research she has visited the website of attorneys Goldberg Kohn, and found they have helped protect the rights of many whistleblowers who were committed to fighting fraud against the Government.