We need to tackle culture of whistleblower reprisal

Speaking out against wrongdoing in the workplace should be commended, not vilified

Who dares to step out of line? “The almost universal experience of Irish whistleblowers, in both public and private sectors – whether they be soldiers, gardaí, nurses, midwives, priests or even journalists – is the immediate destruction of their chosen career path.” Photograph: Alan Betson

Who dares to step out of line? “The almost universal experience of Irish whistleblowers, in both public and private sectors – whether they be soldiers, gardaí, nurses, midwives, priests or even journalists – is the immediate destruction of their chosen career path.” Photograph: Alan Betson

Mon, Apr 21, 2014, 01:00

In light of so many recent scandals and crises of public confidence in Ireland, the term whistleblower is high on the news agenda. Indeed, in recent days my children have been asking me what a whistleblower is.

I have tried to explain that a whistleblower is someone who reports wrongdoing in the workplace. Someone who tries to do the right thing – a workplace Samaritan of sorts. They understand this explanation in an age-appropriate manner. My six-year-old nods sagely and asks the question: “So, whistleblowers are the good guys then?” And well he might ask.

In Irish public discourse, whistleblowers are treated with suspicion. Perhaps this is something to do with our historical obsession with informers – an entirely different phenomenon. Informers deliberately do the wrong thing – engage in unethical behaviour – for personal gain or revenge. Whistleblowers however, by definition, make an ethical choice. When confronted with wrongdoing, corruption or abuse, they choose not to collaborate. They opt for right over wrong and in so doing vindicate their loyalty to the common good. Their actions are not “disgusting”, but profoundly pro-social.

Imagine if we had had whistleblowers during the so-called Celtic Tiger era? Imagine if we had them in the Irish banking sector, Department of Finance or financial regulatory agencies? Imagine, if you can, whistleblowers in the Galway tent? Or indeed among the ranks of ministers, advisers and programme managers that danced this country off an ethical and fiscal cliff. After the intellectual and ethical failures of the Celtic Tiger, Ireland is one country in particular that ought to treasure its whistleblowers.

In recent months however, in the Irish print and electronic media, I have listened to some of the most appalling and ill-informed discussion of whistleblowing that I have ever heard. They are commonly referred to in pejorative terms – often by high-profile journalists who ought to know better. In one case in particular, a respected political correspondent described whistleblowers as, “the type of persons you wouldn’t go for a cup of coffee with”. Other commentators and contributors have described whistleblowers as “outcasts” or “social pariahs”. On one panel discussion on national radio an “expert” used the words “tout” or “turncoat” to describe them.


Professional and personal loss
Whistleblowers rarely get to participate in such panel discussions. In many cases, they are too busy reassemble their lives. For Ireland has a unique and dubious distinction when it comes to whistleblowers. Almost 100 per cent of Irish whistleblowers are subjected to what is known in the growing international literature on the activity as “Whistleblower Reprisal”.

Here such reprisal has enormous consequences for workers or volunteers who choose to speak up against abuse and corruption. The almost universal experience of Irish whistleblowers, in public and private sectors – whether they be soldiers, gardaí, nurses, midwives, priests or even journalists – is the immediate destruction of their chosen career path. Whistleblower reprisal Irish-style which normally consists of character assassination, followed by isolation and hostile scrutiny – often accompanied by suspension or dismissal – gives rise to great professional and personal loss.

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