The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Margaret Heffernan Headshot

Myths and Realities of Whistleblowing

Posted: Updated:

The predominant myth surrounding whistleblowers is that they're cranks, madmen (and women) all with a grudge and mildly unstable. Movies like The Insider and The Informant reinforce the stereotype and it's fantastically comfortable for all of us to pillory these outsiders because as long as they're crazy, we are sane in our silence.

I've interviewed dozens, if not hundreds of whistleblowers and the truth is diametrically opposed to the myth. For the most part, these are deeply loyal employees who don't have a grudge - they have a passion, for their organization and the causes that it serves. They are highly committed, hard working, intelligent and thoughtful individuals. Because of that, they have high standards and are observant. When they see things that don't make sense, they worry about them and start to connect dots. Once they have identified a pattern of mistakes or abuse, they articulate their concerns in the confidence or hope that the organization they serve will want to put things right. It is when they are disappointed in that hope that they become dissidents and that they start getting angry.

The vast literature concerning whistleblowers shows that, far from weird extremists, they are really quite ordinary people: male and female, young and old, junior and senior, no more nerdy or obsessive than most hard workers. What sets them apart is their commitment and their expectation that their employers will want to do the right thing.

The NHS has a miserable history of dealing with whistleblowers. Its gagging clauses make it worse and the Service's current defensiveness is blinding it to the most important lesson implicit in whistleblower stories. These people are any organization's best early warning system. They care, they notice and they speak up. Any smart leader should want these people and cherish them. One of the sad truths about leadership is that, the higher up the ladder you travel, the less you know. There's always more information at the edge than at the centre. Once you have power, you are inevitably surrounded by people who have their own agendas and will tell you whatever advances them. The single hardest part of leading any organization is knowing what is going on. There's too much noise in the system, too much complexity: you absolutely depend on people speaking up and raising concerns.

The academic literature suggests that, for the most part, people don't speak up, whether from fear or a sense of futility. (I explore this in my TED talk.) Asked if there were issues or concerns which they were afraid to articulate, 85 per cent of executives answered 'yes'. This is a great deal of silence, a great deal of information that isn't getting the attention it needs. In that context, you rely on whistleblowers if you're smart.

I've spoken to many groups around the country about whistleblowing. They all think that the price of speaking up is punishment. What they smugly overlook is the higher price of not speaking up: abuse, corruption, and the awful knowledge that you could have done something - but chose not to. Do whistleblowers often have a tough time? Yes, many do. Those that don't you rarely hear about - though they are out there in droves. But one recurrent theme applies to every whistleblower I've ever interviewed, whether they've had an easy road or a public crucifixion. Every single one of them looks back on their actions with enormous pride. It was at this difficult moment of truth that they all found themselves. Joe Darby, who handed in the photographs at Abu Ghraib: "I don't regret any of it, I never doubted that it was the right thing." Cynthia Thomas, who forced attention to the inadequate pumps being installed in New Orleans levees: "I always used to say 'I don't know what I want to be when I grow up.' Now I know. I found myself in this cause and I'm not the same person any more."

The important truth about whistleblowers is that we need them and there aren't enough of them. Instead of a gagging clause, the NHS and any self-respecting institution should introduce a 'responsibility to inform'. When you see something wrong and say nothing, you're complicit. Wilful blindness is no excuse in the law and there's no reason it should let any of us off the hook.