How wrongdoers cover their tracks, eliminate and silence potential witnesses, and secure 'soft landings' if they are exposed.
Many Canadians find it difficult to fathom why whistleblowers are treated so badly – until they understand how wrongdoers operate. Then it all makes perfect sense.
Over the years FAIR has been approached by literally hundreds of whistleblowers seeking help. These individuals are from all parts of the country, in government and in the private sector, in senior positions or front-line workers. And the types of wrongdoing they describe vary greatly too.
But one aspect of their stories is uncannily similar—the types of reprisal taken against them. It's as if there were a procedure, a standard game plan that the aggressors follow.
What we have learned from these conversations is that it's easy—childishly easy—for wrongdoers to cover their tracks and to silence witnesses, especially when the offenders hold positions of power and trust. Here's how it's done.
Types of wrongdoer
The most dangerous wrongdoers are not low-level employees who may pocket the petty cash, but middle- and senior managers who engage in brazen, often well-planned schemes to further their own interests: contract fraud, grants to companies they own, payments for work that is never done, even policy decisions benefiting companies that reward them discreetly—and that they plan to work for after leaving the public service.
The federal government spends more than $500-million every day. Even in fairly small departments it seems possible to skim off thousands, sometimes millions, without attracting attention—and in large departments much more. If someone can do this year after year, perhaps for decades, it soon adds up. Pretty soon we are talking about serious money.
Not all misconduct is financially driven: some wrongdoers are simply incompetent, malevolent or self-absorbed who break much of what they touch, weaken their departments and make their employees' lives a misery—but they remain untouchable, protected by bosses who value their unswerving loyalty, or by close friends or family members in high places.
The most dangerous type of wrongdoer is the sociopath or psychopath. These individuals lack empathy for others, they are fluent and habitual liars, and they seek personal gratification through power and control. They are also expert manipulators, charming their bosses and anyone important to them, while at the same time bullying and attacking subordinates. Their ruthlessness and superficial charm help them to attain positions of power and trust: research has shown that about 4% of people in senior management positions have psychopathic characteristics – a much higher percentage than in the general population.
Smart wrongdoers stay alert to possible threats, such as employees who seem too idealistic, too independent-minded or too competent. Such potential whistleblowers are often singled out for special treatment even before they realize that there's anything amiss. The wrongdoer may take pains to remain on good terms with these individuals (or at least to keep them guessing) while rubbishing them to others: senior management, human resources staff and auditors. By the time the whistleblower discovers the misconduct and tries to raise the alarm he or she has long since been discredited—labelled as untrustworthy, a problem employee with a grudge or even mentally unbalanced.
Wrongdoers within the management ranks also hold some trump cards: their unchallenged authority over employees; control over management processes; and the reluctance of their superiors to face embarrassment.
Isolation and harassment
The Milgram and Stanford Prison experiments, conducted in the 1960s and 1970s, demonstrated dramatically that most people are easily persuaded to "follow orders," to the extent of administering brutal, potentially lethal punishments to others—even when the person issuing the orders has no real authority or control over them.
When the person issuing the orders has real authority—by virtue of controlling subordinates' livelihood and careers—there seem to be virtually no limits. It's easy for a manager to isolate a suspected whistleblower, to threaten and humiliate them, and to engage other employees in such reprisals. Even close friends and colleagues of the employee may become afraid to be seen with them. Such harassment can inflict life-changing psychological injuries—leading to chronic depression, panic attacks, PTSD, and even driving some to suicide. But dishonest managers can readily inflict this type of vengeance without even leaving "fingerprints"—it's all deniable as being beyond their control.
Wrongdoers in positions of authority can also manipulate management processes to protect themselves and to discredit witnesses. Records of the truth-teller's 20-year unblemished career may suddenly disappear from their personnel file, to be replaced with reprimands and bogus complaints. Absurd work assignments and rigged performance appraisals can also be used to create 'proof' that the whistleblower is incompetent, lazy or disobedient.
False accusations and retaliatory investigations are another tried-and-tested tactic, sometimes accusing the whistleblower of the very wrongdoing that they have tried to expose. And grievances can be manipulated too. Under Canadian law a grievance is considered a 'comprehensive remedy' for employees who complain of reprisals, so they have no other recourse—even when the grievance process is managed by the people who are accused of wrongdoing.
Co-opting top management
As the cover-up and reprisals continue, top management often becomes implicated and committed to supporting the wrongdoers. This can happen in several ways: because the wrongdoers have charmed top management into believing their version of the story; because the wrongdoing involves top management or reflects badly on them; or because top management has reflexively tried to minimize or ignore the problems in the past and now cannot turn back. That's why even good organizations, managed by honest and decent leaders, may engage in the most determined and contemptible reprisals.
Once top management is enlisted, however unwittingly, the entire resources of the organization can be deployed against the whistleblower, with devastating consequences.
Senior people may publicly malign the whistleblower's motives, character and mental stability. If a truth-teller initiates legal action, Justice Department lawyers are always assigned to defend the department—and their conduct in such cases too often smacks of revenge. The expression "heads on stakes" describes well the effect of such legal tactics—they send a stark warning to others.
Foreign Affairs whistleblower Joanna Gualtieri's lawsuit against her bosses for harassment was dragged out for 12 years, forcing her to answer more than 10,500 questions, until the judge ruled that government lawyers had abused the legal process. Since being fired, Dr. Shiv Chopra and his colleagues have spent 6 years in hearings before the Labour Relations Board and still have no ruling on their case. The government has paid more than $600,000 in fees to the now-retired manager accused of ordering their dismissal—to advise the legal team that is defending her actions.
Time is not on the whistleblowers' side. Given sufficient delay the wrongdoers will always win: the public forgets, evidence is lost or destroyed, witnesses move away or die, and the whistleblower finally collapses or gives up, exhausted—out of money and hope.
It's hard for the public to understand why people guilty of blatant misconduct so often receive soft landings. It's usually for the protection of others.
When a wrongdoer is unmasked, top management generally wants to keep this as quiet as possible. Wrongdoers may be moved to other departments, perhaps with promotions and glowing references, or they may be paid off in some way that ensures their silence. Punishing them may not even be considered an option: it is likely to create embarrassing publicity; it may confirm that top management erred before in supporting a scoundrel; and the wrongdoer may still be vigorously protected by loyal and influential friends.
Above all it's often dangerous to punish the wrongdoer because he or she knows where the bodies are buried: if cornered, who knows what revelations might follow. We might never have learned about Brian Mulroney indiscreetly pocketing wads of cash had the former PM not abandoned and bad-mouthed Karlheinz Schreiber, leaving the former Airbus promoter vulnerable to extradition and jail.
Wrongdoers in the workplace can wreak havoc on the organizations that employ them, by stealing, wasting or diverting resources, by worming their way into senior jobs that they cannot perform properly, by creating a toxic work environment that drives out competent people, and sometimes by rash, selve-serving decisions that result in catastrophe. That's why it's so important to protect whistleblowers: because often these courageous employees are the last line of defence, when everything else has failed.
That's also why the laws and procedures designed to protect whistleblowers and expose wrongdoers must be well-designed and thorough: because they must be capable of cutting through layer upon layer of deception: bold lies, false evidence and bogus investigations. Half-measures just don't cut it.
By David Hutton, Senior Fellow, Centre for Free Expression and Former Executive Director, FAIR