Advice for whistleblowers

Below is a draft one-pager of advice for whistleblowers, which I’m posting here to solicit comments. Feel free to submit them in the comments section. Once I have received and processed feedback, I will post it on our Help and About Whistleblowing pages.

There’s much more that can be (and has been) written about whistleblowing, of course, but keep in mind that we’re trying to keep it succinct – a quick checklist.

There are also some excellent books out there, some available for free on the web. Visit our Links & Books page to find a listing.

Also, the usual legal disclaimer applies. Scroll to the bottom of the post to read it.

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To begin with, if you witness wrongdoing or misconduct, do not assume that senior management is not aware of it and would act if they were. This is a classic whistleblowing pitfall. In many cases, management is either aware of the issue or (perversely) would rather not be. In either case, it is usually the messenger (read: whistleblower) who suffers. Even if it turns out that management does have good intentions, the imbalance in power is so great that caution is the best policy.

Beyond that, there are two types of advice we can give. One pertains to general rules of thumb about your own conduct and protecting yourself. The other are a series of steps which may help in deciding whether to bring an issue forward, and how to proceed when the decision is made.

Steps to take after witnessing wrongdoing or misconduct

  1. Check your facts and make sure you are right about what you witnessed or learned. Even small errors will hurt your credibility.
  2. Speaking out may be characterized as a personal grudge, so be completely sure that it isn’t.
  3. Don’t be proud: get a second opinion.
    • Consult your conscience
    • Consult your family
    • Consult your union or professional association
    • Consult a lawyer
  4. Find allies, if possible.
    • Colleagues
    • Unions and professional associations
    • Activist groups
    • Politicians
  5. Gather evidence: Document, document, document.
  6. Create an understandable narrative:
    • Collect your documents and put the facts together
    • Create a package:
      • Start with a long narrative, preferably chronologically
      • Summarize the story in a page, using bullet points as appropriate
      • Boil it down to one paragraph – this is the hook for interested parties
      • As much as possible, tie your story to the public interest
  7. If you decide to proceed, pick the best way to blow the whistle.
    • Anonymous whistleblowing may not be possible, especially if you’ve already raised the issue
    • Anonymity doesn’t always work: sometimes they figure it out
    • Try to assess management’s likely response, but remain cautious
    • Beware of hot lines (they often go straight back to the problem)
    • Consider your union or other group
    • Consult a lawyer

General rules of thumb on self-preservation and conduct 

  1. If at all possible, do not go to meetings alone. This is where the worst abuses can occur, and where evidence of reprisals surface. Also, people tend to moderate their behaviour when witnesses are present.
  2. Know your rights.
  3. Resist bitterness and the urge for revenge. These emotions cloud judgement.
  4. Stay physically and emotionally healthy – exercise and keep connected with your family.
  5. And, very importantly: know when to let go. Not every battle can be won.

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Please note that Canadians for Accountability is not able to provide legal advice. Readers are advised to use information on this website with caution, and to seek the advice of a union representative, lawyer, or other appropriate professional before taking action. Neither Canadians for Accountability nor any of its officers assume responsibility for any type of damage caused or alleged to be caused by any person, group, organization or entity by information on this website. Any misunderstanding, use or misuse of information on this website is the sole responsibility of the reader.

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4 Comments

  1. Jim Black

     /  September 22, 2013

    Great read. I would only add a couple things that may seem an over reaction for some but for others you may think it is important.
    1.) Report any and all criminal conduct through Crime Stoppers. This will make it anonymous and assist with having a third party investigate wrong doing. If there is theft involved it may assist with having criminal charges laid. You may be disappointed if the investigation does not go far. People in positions of authority have amazing methods of getting around the truth.
    2.) Tape any and all conversations confidentially. People dealing with Social Services have been finding this a very important tool to deal with institutional abuse. .
    3.) Attempt to keep all records in typed format. Email, and written records work better then recalling a conversation.
    4. ) Get clarification from a Lawyer before you have conversations dealing with the problem you are facing. Finding a Lawyer normally is expensive; however there are plans available with a small monthly fee providing the advice of a good Lawyer with specific specialities in different forms of law. I wish I had access to the plan years ago. Now I wouldn’t be without it.

  2. Leo Lehtiniemi

     /  September 23, 2013

    Ian:

    My only major observation/comment is that the one-pager should emphasize – at the outset – the importance of “looking before one leaps”.

    Perhaps a caution at/near the beginning such as:

    Before you take any action, take time to find out where you can get confidential support and advice on what whistleblowing can or will involve if you do go forward. Others who have blown the whistle can share valuable lessons of their experiences.

    In point 5, it may be wide to be explicit – Make copies and keep them in a safe place – not at work.

    Leo

  3. David Joy

     /  September 23, 2013

    If at all possible, exhaust every internal mechanism possible to address the wrongdoing before going to the Public Sector Integrity Commissioner of Canada or to the media. Document your approaches and the conversations, emails etc…with those you have informed or confronted with the wrongdoing. This will strengthen your case and your credibility in the end. Undoubtedly you will suffer some sort of reprisal but never give up. Fight the good fight and do not let it consume you. Do all you can each day and let it go to protect your health and that of your family.

  4. He knows

     /  September 23, 2013

    We have a problem (we all know that) Canada. More like Canadian WBers. Due to lack of good laws that would protect you WBing is almost undesirable by all. You certainly will be hurt one way or another. I know how it works in private sector The management is in on most misconduct. In fact they design it, approve it and encourage it. Using legal and illegal practices to do biz is far better than only legal. Thus they use criminal activities deliberately and with approval from the top. If we had USA style False Claim Act (look it up) law WBing would be a joy and very profitable too. I have such evidence on a Canadian drug co’s criminal beaviour that in USA they would be dead. Here no one was interested to do anything about it. Not the press, not the govt not anyone. You live in the system that Chomsky describes best. Read and cry. By the way the co in question has paid over 1/2 billion in fines in USA, here $10K for the same crimes. Only in Canada. Now you know why we are the best heaven for world’s criminals both corporate and real ones..