William Sanjour

September 18, 1993

Most whistleblowers do not start out to blow the whistle on anyone. They simply do what they think they ought to be doing. This is especially true of professional people, who when acting within the accepted practices and ethics of their profession sometimes find themselves vilified as whistleblowers when, in their minds, they are merely professionals carrying out their professional responsibility. The classic description of this phenomenon appears in a play written in 1882 by Henrik Ibsen called An Enemy of the People. The play's protagonist, a physician living in a resort town, finds himself unanimously branded a public enemy because he maintains that the town's economic base, a tourist spa, is polluted and should be closed for expensive repairs. (This play should be required reading in all professional schools.)

It is important to remember that one becomes a whistleblower not because he thinks of himself as such, but because others view him as a whistleblower.

Most nascent whistleblowers (who may not consider themselves whistleblowers) will back down when they find strong opposition from their employers, peers, or colleagues. A few, convinced that they are right and will be vindicated, will press on in spite of the opposition. This is usually accompanied by a belief that it is just a big misunderstanding and that the appropriate authority or authority figure will straighten it all out once they understand what it is all about. (I call this the "Stalin syndrome" after the character in a novel by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn who feels that his unjust imprisonment at the hand of Soviet authorities would end "if only Stalin knew.")

Sooner or later they find out that "Stalin" does know or doesn't care and that they alone must face the cold winds of vilification. At this point, most of the few who have come this far decide it isn't worth it. They will enter a state of purgatory where they will pull in their horns, keep a low profile and hope to purge themselves. Sometimes, after a suitable period of obeisance, their whistleblowing is chalked up to youthful indiscretion (or mid-life crisis) and they are restored to the good graces of the-powers-that-be. Sometimes not. Sometimes the harassment never stops, forcing the whistleblower to change jobs, locations, or professions. Some end up digging ditches. Some even die. But some fight back. This is the hard-core whistleblower. He's angry. He knows he's right and he wants vindication, often with a damn-the-consequences attitude.

My advice to people, in general, is don't be a whistleblower. Avoid open challenge or defiance of authority or power. Try to satisfy your conscience or your sense of duty without getting personally involved. For example you can leak stuff to a known whistleblower who is willing to take the heat, or to an activist organization, or to a plaintiff's attorney. Leaking to politicians and the press, on the other hand, is a tricky business and can easily blow your cover whereas there is a better chance of remaining anonymous by dealing with activists. A word of caution, however; if the-powers-that-be figure out who the leaker is and harass him, he has greater legal protection if he leaked to Congress or the press than if he leaked anonymously.

The next thing I would advise a prospective whistleblower is to know the law, the rules and one's rights long before you start out. Know what to expect by talking to people who have been down the road. Read books and articles about whistleblowers and whistleblower protection laws. Small subtle differences on how you blow the whistle, what you blow it on and where you blow it can make big differences in the kind of legal protection you have. If legal counsel is needed, get the name of an attorney who specializes in whistleblower law from an activist group. Do not rely on local attorneys. They are probably not familiar with the laws protecting whistleblowers and they are often subject to local pressures which may be against your interests.

If you have taken the first step but are short of being a hardcore whistleblower then keep a low profile. Don't make unnecessary waves. But don't kid yourself. With a few exceptions, management prizes loyalty above competence. Therefore, protect yourself against the possibility of future harassment. Keep good contemporaneous records, i.e. meeting notes, phone logs, calendar, diary etc. These carry a lot of weight in legal proceedings, much more so than accounts written months after the fact. Do not let false accusations of misconduct, especially written charges, go unanswered, but be polite, diplomatic, and respectful in your response.

However, if you elect to become a hard-core whistleblower, then elect it, don't stumble into it. Don't count on having your cake and eating it. Don't think you can continue defying the-powers- that-be and still enjoy the same lifestyle as before just because you are right or acting within the confines of your profession. Many whistleblowers have been destroyed by that kind of naivete (or professional arrogance).

Hard-core whistle-blowing is an entirely different game. Here the object is to protect yourself by keeping a high profile. Seek out the constituency that you are benefiting by your whistleblowing activities and work with them so that they can protect you as you help them. Learn effective techniques for dealing with the press, Congress, and other politicians.

To my mind, Martin Luther is the perfect model of the professional turned hard-core whistleblower. He was an ordained priest and a doctor of theology. In his professional capacity as a parish priest and professor of theology at the University of Wittenberg he raised certain moral and theological issues for debate. These received widespread publicity and were viewed as a challenge to the church by the hierarchy who proceeded to harass Luther. Rather than back down, Luther formed alliances with the public and the powerful north German princes who shared his views and defied the authority of the church. Protected by a bodyguard of German knights, he stood at the Diet of Worms, convened to drive him into submission, and spoke the words which can serve as the credo of the hard-core whistleblower: "Here I stand. I cannot do otherwise."

Luther recognized (what many whistleblowers fail to acknowledge) that having publicly confronted the-powers-that-be head-on he could never return to the life he led before. Instead, with the help of his allies, he carved out a new life for himself. In doing so he had to make many changes and develop many new skills but he took command of his life and never allowed himself to became a victim.


Presented at the Fourth Scientific Assembly for Environmental Health, Environmental Health Network, Washington, DC, September 18, 1993.

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