If you suspect that your company or team is engaging in some kind of malfeasance—such as mishandling user data, or engaging in financial manipulation—you might have to become a whistleblower. And that’s a big, scary role to take on; even if your assumptions about illegal activity are correct, reporting it to the proper authorities can have all sorts of negative consequences.
For example, whistleblowers can find themselves shunned by their current coworkers, or retaliated against by their superiors; they might lose their job, ostensibly for reasons unrelated to the whistleblowing. There’s also the risk of lawsuits. In short, it’s a move to be made carefully, after much deliberation and discussion with people you trust.
Despite that blowback, whistleblowers can provide an invaluable service to society. For example, engineers have been at the forefront of providing information about Boeing's 737 MAX issues.
If you do decide to blow that (proverbial) whistle, though, here are some key things to keep in mind:
Consider Your Whistleblower Strategy
Whistleblowing should never be an impulsive decision. Away from the office, sit down with a piece of paper (or the writing app of your choice) and document exactly what’s wrong with the team or organization. Is a violation of the law really occurring? Who’s actually responsible for what’s going on?
Once you’ve decided that you need to report some wrongdoing, consider your best course of action. Many companies have internal channels for anonymously reporting illegal activity, and you should examine those first. If no such channel exists, you may need to report in a way that exposes your identity—and that instantly makes things more complicated. How will you do so while minimizing your risk of retaliation?
And make no mistake about it: retaliation is a huge issue. In March, a survey by Blind showed that sizable percentages of employees at most major tech firms had seen or experienced some form of retaliation.
When considering whether to report, most employees’ first and foremost concern is losing their job. But according tothe Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), discrimination can go beyond firing a whistleblower; managers and companies have also transferred complainants, threatened them with arrest or lawsuits over unrelated issues, made their workflows more difficult, or even resorted to verbal or physical abuse.
In other words, before reporting anything, work out every single option and consequence. That way, you won’t be surprised by whatever happens.
When you spot bad behavior, it’s very important to document as much as possible; the proper authorities will need whatever you collect in order to take action. Just make sure all that documentation is legal—i.e., emails you’ve received legitimately. Stealing documents from a supervisor’s desk? That’s a huge no-go.
Consider Consulting an Attorney
If you’re concerned about discrimination or blowback as a result of whistleblowing, consider consulting an attorney who specializes in whistleblowing cases; they may give you advice about handling the potential fallout (and whether you should do things like report the malfeasance to the SEC, in the case of securities law violations).
Loose Lips Sink Ships
Never Google or email anything that would potentially reveal your whistleblower status from a company computer or network. Don’t tell your coworkers what you’re thinking of doing. And definitely don’t threaten anyone with your whistleblowing intentions.
Get Your Résumé, CV, and Materials Ready
Whatever happens with your complaint, chances are pretty good that you’re leaving your current company pretty soon. With that in mind, make sure that your résumé, online profiles, and other materials are up-to-date.