Whistleblowing is commonly associated with retaliation. As research into whistleblowing develops, it is trying to create an evidence base for preventing retaliation.

Research in different countries confirms that far too often those who report wrongdoing are bullied, demoted or dismissed. Survey research on whistleblowing in public and private sectors in the USA found that between 16% and 38% of those who reported wrongdoing had been retaliated against. Research into the Australian public sector found that to be 22%. In the UK, research suggests the retaliation rate is between 35 and 40%.[1] Depending on the sampling strategy used, that might be higher.

Researchers have also started to refine ways in which retaliation is best understood and measured. We know that when whistleblowers suffer, they tend to experience multiple forms of retaliation. There are serious methodological issues about measuring that suffering. For example, how do you measure severity of retaliation? Can we simply add up the number of retaliations someone has suffered? Or if we’d use a scale, which one is worse: ostracism by colleagues or being fired? And how much worse is one compared to the other? Other discussions revolve around what the best way is to distinguish types of retaliation: direct versus indirect, work related versus social retaliation, formal versus informal? The lack of consensus doesn’t help when you want to compare one study with another. Of course, harm can also affect families and friends of whistleblowers. One particular study found that of 77 children who had a whistleblowing parent, 60 had been affected by divorces.[2] Hence, how wide should the harm be measured?

Prevention of harm, or at least addressing harm as early as possible, largely depends on sound knowledge. Thus, the methodological work is important for measuring adequately what is experienced. Recently, a process view is seen as more typical for whistleblowing.[3] It means that whistleblowing is most likely not a single, one-off action – namely someone disclosing information about alleged wrongdoing – but instead is a long sequence of questioning practice and raising a concern with different people, through different channels. Speaking up seems a more appropriate term to talk about the first stages of that process. At what stage exactly it is right to use the terms whistleblowing and whistleblower, depends on the kind of responses one gets and the channels used.

I want to sketch here two implications of that process view for our understanding of retaliation. One is that we also recognise that retaliation can develop gradually. Thus, emerging best practice includes making a ‘retaliation risk assessment’ as soon as a whistleblowing report is received. Thus, we move from a reactive approach to a proactive approach in whistleblower protection. That means protection starts when the report is made rather than when the whistleblower experiences retaliation. Such early risk assessment features in Australian regulatory guidance[4] and there is a growing international consensus[5] that this is the way forward.

The second implication of understanding whistleblowing as a long process is that research has started to look at ‘detriment’ rather than ‘retaliation’. Simply put, both detriment and retaliation denote a harm to the person who reports wrongdoing. The difference is that with retaliation, the harm is intended, whereas with detriment the harm is not necessarily intended, but nevertheless real.

Let me give an example. People who report wrongdoing through an online whistleblowing channel get an automated message, acknowledging receipt of their report. But then often they do not hear anything for a couple of months, only for a second and final message saying their case has now been closed. The system here is clearly non-responsive. That does not constitute retaliation, but it is nevertheless detrimental. Research in Australia and New Zealand[6] finds that even workers who say that the organisation handled their report well – i.e. they did not experience retaliation and their concern was acted upon – nevertheless find that going through the process was very stressful and believe this stress had a negative impact on their productivity.

Research tries to find patterns in how and when whistleblowers experience harm. That leads scholars to look beyond retaliation and into management interventions that can result in more successful speak up instead of harmed whistleblowers.

This blog was published as part of the Alphabet of Speak Up in October 2020’s Speak Up Month

Wim Vandekerckhove is Professor of Business Ethics at the University of Greenwich. He holds a Phd in Applied Ethics from Ghent University. Wim was a visiting scholar at the University of Oslo in 2007 (Centre for Development and the Environment SUM), and a visiting fellow at Griffith University in 2020 (Centre for Governance and Public Policy). Wim is also co-director of the Centre of Research on Employment and Work (CREW) and is the editor-in-chief of Philosophy of Management (Springer).

Wim has provided expertise on whistleblowing to various national and international organisations. His research has featured in various journals on ethics and organisation studies. His monographs include Whistleblowing and Organisational Social Responsibility (2006, Ashgate/Routledge), and The Whistleblowing Guide: Speak-Up Arrangements, Challenges, and Best Practices (2019, Wiley, with Kate Kenny and Marianna Fotaki).

[1] Rodney Smith, Whistleblowers and suffering. International Handbook on Whistleblowing Research, 2014, Edward Elgar Publ., pp.230-249.

[2] Rodney Smith, op. cit.

[3] Wim Vandekerckhove and  Arron Phillips, Whistleblowing as a protracted process: A study of UK whistleblower journeys. Journal of Business Ethics, 2019, 159(1), pp.201-219.

[4] Australian Securities & Investment Commission, Whistleblower policies, Regulatory Guide 270, November 2019.

[5] Guidance on ‘retaliation risk assessment’ is foreseen to be part of ISO37002, an international standard for whistleblowing management systems. Publication is expected April 2021.

[6] AJ Brown, Clean as a whistle: A five step guide to better whistleblowing policy and practice in business and government—Key findings and actions of Whistling While They Work 2, Griffith University, 2019.