Imagine the following scenario: You’ve observed some cheating at work that really troubles you. It seems that your supervisor is cheating the government by lying about testing that your company hasn’t really done on its products, even though testing is required under your government contract. Should you report this? Who will get hurt? What will other people think?
Most of us have been told since childhood that it’s not nice to be a tattletale. “Don’t come running to tell me that Hermione took an extra cookie.” “Don’t go tell Mom and Dad that Jeremiah got in trouble at recess.” Parents, teachers, babysitters, older siblings – there is a pretty solid alliance of people who have said not to tattle.
So is whistleblowing any different?
Yes, it is very different.
First, a whistleblower is reporting fraud – not just some minor misbehavior or transgression. Second, whistleblowing under the False Claims Act or other similar laws involves some people essentially stealing money – and oftentimes others not getting the government services that they should receive.
Third, whistleblowing can involve significant safety or public health issues, such as lying about whether bulletproof vests are really capable of stopping bullets, or whether healthcare workers are pushing unnecessary medical procedures on patients. Finally, whistleblowing has been recognized by the government as the primary way that fraud is uncovered, and our elected representatives have deliberately incentivized whistleblowing for that reason.
Unlike back in elementary school, where tattlers were often just trying to get another child in trouble, whistleblowers are playing a critical role in making sure that government projects and services are being completed properly or administered fairly and efficiently.
While writing this post, I looked up the common synonyms for tattletale, and found those terms quite informative. The top listed synonyms include betrayer, informant, informer, rat, snitch, squealer, stool pigeon, and talebearer.
There are strong threads of dishonesty, underhandedness, cowardice, or abandonment of friends in those terms, which do not describe the typical whistleblower situation. Instead, frequently an employee will have tried internally to report or stop the fraudulent behavior that she has observed. Unfortunately, such efforts often lead to the employee being threatened, or fired. Typically, the wrongdoing is taking place at a high level of the company, not willingly engaged in by your colleagues and co-workers. Indeed, depending on the circumstances, your co-workers might be grateful for your reporting, since it might result in them being able to return to more professional or ethical practices. And cowardly? Not at all, given the stress that invariably accompanies filing a whistleblower case.
Helping to stop fraud allows government programs to operate more efficiently and effectively. Keeping people in positions of authority and responsibility accountable for their actions also serves as a deterrent function for other companies, multiplying the impact of any one case. Despite the career risks, there can be great satisfaction in knowing that you’ve been involved in this dynamic and critical function – and we have never known a whistleblower to be tagged as a tattletale.
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