Joyce Rothschild, professor of sociology, School of Public and International Affairs, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, USA, has studied whistleblowers for 10 years now. She responded to Sopan Joshi's emails. Excerpts:
Why research whistleblowers?
I had for many years studied cooperatives of workers and women and how their organisation differed from the bureaucratic model of organisation. People kept asking me, "But what of people with strong values in the corporate or public sector?" I realised that value-driven people in bureaucratic organisations might well become the whistleblowers of the future.
How did you locate whistleblowers?
In the early 1990s, parade magazine ran an a brief article on them, also directing would-be whistleblowers to a support service being run by a fellow in Maryland. The article gave a toll-free phone number. I called this person and found he had received nearly 1,000 calls. He shared their numbers with me and that became the basis for my sample.
Isn't it difficult to get them to talk?
Actually, their willingness to talk was amazing. Initially, they'd be suspicious. But after we assured them that we really were university researchers, every single person agreed. Many told us how grateful they were for the chance to talk about their cases with someone who was not out to get them.
Salient outcomes of the study?
Whistleblowers take big risks. They are so many examples of integrity and purpose in the face of retaliation. In our study of 394 whistleblowers and 218 silent observers, we learned retaliation against the whistleblowers is even more severe and more certain than we had thought. In our sample, 69 per cent of the internal whistleblowers and some 84 per cent of the external whistleblowers were fired or forced to resign or retire, even though whistleblowing tends to be more common among persons who have been high performers. Behind these numbers lies intense distress -- 84 per cent of whistleblowers said they suffered "severe depression or anxiety"; 78 per cent learned "distrust of others"; 69 per cent said they suffered a "decline in physical health"; 66 per cent suffered a "severe financial decline"; and some 53 per cent said their "family relations were harmed". Other social scientists who have studied whistleblowers conclude that they are almost always broken, and irretrievably so, by the retaliation that follows. I recall Anne, who worked in a chemicals factory and was handling unmarked chemicals drums. In her desire to learn what compounds were in the drums, she ended up with tumours in her mouth and in her brain, scorned by her previous employer and by some of her previous co-workers and fired.
The past decade or two have seen a huge rise in the extent of political dissent in the workplace, so much so, that these new dissenters have their own name: whistleblowers. I characterise their dissent as 'political' in that the content of their claims brings attention to organisational wrongdoing of public -- and not just personal -- interest.
Rarely a week goes by in which I do not hear of more whistleblower cases. Environmental risk or harm is its most frequent subject. Next come cases of old-fashioned financial fraud. After that come the many claims of product defects that might harm consumers and subject the corporation to significant liability. We are seeing a lot of this in the pharmaceutical industry right now.
Why is whistleblowing burgeoning?
My thesis is that it has something to do with the transformation of the us economy from a manufacturing-based, industrial economy to a service-based, information processing economy. One, more jobs in a modern economy require professional qualifications and, through graduate education and professional associations, the professions convey their own professional codes of ethics and bases for judgment. Two, the greater specialisation and complexity of modern work organisations has created the need for more coordination between specialised units. These coordination jobs bring together information from various units of the organisation. This mean more people are in a position to observe wrongdoing in one unit or another. Three, our information economy has expanded the tier of occupations, and expanded definitions of old occupations, which have as their responsibility the monitoring of other people's job performance. The expansion of monitoring activities, itself the outcome of trying to avoid outside control and regulation, has led directly, I would argue, to the expansion in whistleblowing from the inside.
Any other major changes?
I would argue that individuals' fundamental relationship with their employers has changed markedly over the last couple decades. Specifically, as more and more employers have broken their prior commitments to long-time employees and local communities by shifting their operations to lower-wage countries, it would be surprising if citizens and former employees did not re-think their reciprocal commitments to the organisation. Commitments that are not reciprocal are not generally sustainable.