Should You Tell? Weighing Impact of Whistleblowers as Women In The Workplace

Contemplative businesswoman with office supply in cardboard box

Contemplative businesswoman with office supply in cardboard box

We are constantly reminded in this culture that if we see something, say something.

It is a mantra we apply to public safety in the age of terrorism. It is also part of our workplace ethos. You are reminded to report what you know is wrong– whether it is actions of a boss, colleague, top administration or management.

The presidential campaign in the last few months has been exploding with surprise discoveries and testimonials pointing to leaks on behaviors and actions that are unsavory and possibly criminal.

But employees and leaders who become whistleblowers are many times fired as a reward for acting upon their conscience. Many women in the workplace who report sexual harassment, are intimidated or worse—not believed. And some say women at work are more likely to be whistleblowers, and also more likely to suffer the consequences.

“When women whistleblowers come forward it may be associated with their ethical virtue. Ethics are an important driver for the reasons women come forward to report unethical, illegal or other actions that cause grave harm,” writes Linda Hunt Mitchell of Azusa Pacific University in International Business Research.

In the recent case of Wells Fargo unethical and illegal business practices, many employees were fired, long before the forced resignation of John Stumpf, the former CEO. Yes, there is legal recourse for employees who are fired as a result of reporting abuses, but for many it is too late, as it was for one prominent female manager.

“Numerous federal protections are afforded to whistleblowers to shield them from retaliation. But if this is the case, why was former Wells Fargo general manager Claudia Ponce de Leon fired after reporting on some of the bank’s now-notorious fraudulent accounts?” reports

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration “faces a number of issues, particularly their staff to complaint ratio. Despite the 3,288 whistleblower complaints the agency has received since 2015, they only have 88 full-time investigators who operate out of OSHA’s 10 regional offices,” RT reports.

OSHA’s “whistleblower program was created with the intention of allowing employees the right to report illegal or unsafe behavior in the workplace. They were the people Ponce de Leon needed the most after she was fired for allegedly telling superiors about some of the illegal transactions Wells Fargo employees were conducting.”

RT continues, “She is far from the only former Wells Fargo employee who alleges that they were fired as retaliation against whistleblowing. In fact, OSHA has received 91 complaints of retaliation as a result of reporting wrongdoings since 2002, Reuters reported. Thirty-four of those complaints have not been resolved.”

The U.S. government has systems in place to shield whistleblowers from firing, intimidation tactics and retaliation.

Recently, Congress passed the Veterans Affairs Patient Protection Act, “to systematically makeover how the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) responds to whistleblowers.” According to,

“Retaliatory investigations are chilling per se and can hang unresolved over an employee’s professional head for years. They generally serve as the foundation of all employment reprisals, and are the springboard to take retaliatory criminal action against whistleblowers, which increasingly is the harassment of choice,” according to author Tom Devine.

“Whistleblowers whose disclosures are confirmed and lead to corrective action will have a transfer preference to escape revenge harassment. The Whistleblower Protection Act already provides this benefit for those who win reprisal cases, but this is the first time it has been applied to those who are vindicated,” Devine writes.

Similarly, the Securities and Exchange Commission instituted “a string of enforcement actions against severance agreements that could have impeded whistleblowers,” thanks to Jane Norberg, chief of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission’s Office of the Whistleblower, according to C. Ryan Barber in the National Law Journal.

“I’m hoping that companies are getting the message about this, and I think by taking some of these actions in quick succession, we are getting the message out there,” Norberg told Barber. “I think they’re always a little bit different, which is also helpful for people to understand that it’s not just one set of circumstances that’s a violation.”

Recently “The SEC has awarded $111 million to 34 whistleblowers, writes Lynne Marek in Crain’s Chicago business. “The program is hitting its stride now and bearing fruit,” Jane Norberg says.

According to Marek, “Some 350 Illinois tipsters dialed up the SEC in the past five years, and tips to the CFTC jumped 18 percent this year after a $10 million payout in April.”

“We saw a massive influx of inquiries from people who knew about fraud and were in a position, and felt comfortable finally, to report what they knew,” says Erika Kelton, a Washington, D.C., attorney at Phillips & Cohen who won a $32 million-plus award for a whistleblower in the biggest SEC payday so far, according to Marek.

“There’s an even bigger need for whistleblowers in the futures and swaps industries because that trading is more complex and the CFTC regulator has a smaller staff, she says. The CFTC’s 700 employees compare to 4,300 at SEC, and their whistleblower offices roughly reflect those  figures.” Marek writes.

Some experts say that women in the workplace are more likely to be whistleblowers than men. A major factor is that women already feel like outsiders in most organizations, and they have an acute sense of ethics and responsibility.

Experts say women in the workplace are more likely to be whistleblowers than men #taketheleadwomen

“Women in the workplace who blow the whistle on government or corporate wrongdoing are not going away quietly, as news stories of the million and billion dollar court settlements verify,” writes Hunt Mitchell.

“However they are still being retaliated against and their lives often become a living nightmare after the act. In reviewing the research most female whistleblowers have several things in common, among them being that they would make the same choice to report fraud again regardless of the consequences because they were internally driven to do what was right and ethical.”

Other experts on business, women in the workplace and whistleblowing agree.

“Whistleblowing is defined by the retaliation that those who speak out receive. Why some organizations find it almost impossible not to retaliate depends more on the properties of the organization than the act of the individual whistleblower,” writes Charles Frederick Alford in the International Journal of Health Policy and Management.

“Not all organizations retaliate against whistleblowers, but the whistleblower represents a threat to every organization. And to every individual within the organization, because the whistleblower challenges the morality and ethics of the rest of us,” Alford writes.

“The morality of our organizations depends, in significant measure, on the fact that there are people unable not to sacrifice themselves, for most whistleblowers experience retaliation. From another perspective, remembering that one is a citizen while working in an organization should not ordinarily require an act of great heroism and self-sacrifice. Today it frequently does.”

Lawyer Michael Volkov wrote about the Wells Fargo case in his blog: “Any company that fires employees for raising concerns is, by definition, a company that has no interest in promoting trust or a positive culture of compliance and ethics.” He added, “As Senator Elizabeth Warren told Stumpf during a nearing on the scandal stated, ‘Your definition of accountable is to push the blame to your low-level employees who don’t have the money for a fancy PR firm to defend themselves.’”

So if you are considering whistleblowing in your organization, consider the culture, consider the consequences. Also consider your personal code of ethics and if you would possibly be happier elsewhere. The aftermath of whistleblowing—small or enormously consequential—can indeed have negative results. But there is another way to look at the bigger picture.

If you are considering whistleblowing, consider the culture, consider the consequences #taketheleadwomen

According to Hunt Mitchell, “We need to consider how society determines what career success is. Exiting a job due to the reporting of unethical acts or fraudulent behavior should not be viewed as destroying your career but reinventing your direction.”

Are you likely to be a whistleblower? Take this test from Constantine Cannon, the Whistleblower Lawyer.

About the Author

Michele Weldon is editorial director of Take The Lead, an award-winning author, journalist, emerita faculty in journalism at Northwestern University and a senior leader with The OpEd Project. @micheleweldon