Blow the Whistle, Clean Out Your Desk

January 06, 1994|By DANIEL S. GREENBERG

WASHINGTON — Washington.--If your New Year's resolves include whistle-blowing against wrongdoing where you work, congratulations for good citizenship. But prepare for personal trouble, including possible demotion or firing.

That's the message in a new study of the risks of whistle-blowing, conducted by the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of the Congress. Its research was confined to U.S. government agencies, where the main whistle-blowing issues are procurement frauds, environmental offenses and evasion of congressional directives. But it may be assumed that the perils of exposing misdeeds by bosses or co-workers are similar if not greater in private industry, which lacks many of the protections that apply to federal employees.

The threat of reprisals is the great silencer when honest employees encounter corruption, mismanagement, theft or other wrongdoings on the job. Recognizing that Civil Service rules for protecting whistle-blowers had proved ineffective, Congress passed the Whistle-blower Protection Act of 1989 to strengthen the safeguards against reprisals.

The 1989 law established a wholly independent new agency, the Office of Special Counsel, to investigate complaints of reprisals against whistle-blowers. Under the law, if the office concludes that a whistle-blower has been unjustly treated, it has the authority to block reprisals and institute disciplinary actions against the persecutor.

On paper, the new procedure looked like the answer to the worrisome dilemma of upstanding behavior leading to personal disaster. But, the General Accounting Office reports, the Office of Special Counsel is deemed a dud by a great majority of the people it was supposed to help.

On the basis of replies to questionnaires returned by 662 of 945 federal employees who sought help from the Office of Special Counsel up to September 1992, the GAO found that an overwhelming percentage came out of the experience deeply disappointed. Perhaps most damning, the new agency was given ''low marks'' by over one-third of those who obtained ''corrective actions'' in response to their complaints of reprisal for whistle-blowing.

The GAO reported that the office responsible for protecting whistle-blowers ''was consistently rated low for fairness, efficiency, competency, responsiveness and communications.'' It got higher ratings for courtesy in listening to whistle-blowers' fears.

But on the central issue of blocking reprisals, the Office of Special Counsel provided little protection for those who sought its help. Forty-one percent of the whistle-blowers no longer were employed in the organizations where they blew the whistle. And of these, the GAO reported, ''about 83 percent said they were no longer employed at the agency because they reported misconduct.''

Reflecting the swiftness of retribution on the job, the GAO reported, ''About 20 percent of the respondents said they became aware of the reprisals within 24 hours of reporting the alleged misconduct.'' Among those who held onto their jobs after reporting misconduct to a superior, 60 percent told the GAO that they ''would not report any new misconduct to these people.''

The GAO report recommends that the Office of Special Counsel ''take an introspective look at its process for dealing with whistle-blower complaints.'' And it criticizes government agencies for failing to educate their employees about whistle-blowers' rights.

The fundamental problem is that organizations, big and small, are intolerant of exposures of their wrongdoing and failings, especially by insiders. Some organizations rise above this intolerance and recognize their whistle-blowers as outstanding employees who merit honor, encouragement and other rewards. But that's pretty rare. In the psychology of us against the world that inevitably shades bureaucratic thinking, whistle-blowers are traitors, even when they disclose awful misdeeds.

Better legal protection can reduce the risks of whistle-blowing. And the press and Congress can help by spotlighting reprisals. But the grim reality is that whistle-blowing can be hazardous to your livelihood.

Daniel S. Greenberg is a syndicated columnist specializing in the politics of science and health.

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