How To Whistleblow Like Edward Snowden Without Blowing Your Career

Not every dirty little workplace secret involves national security. But it can feel like it when you're considering stealing away to HR on your lunch break. Here are tips for anyone who has a delicate workplace culture problem, and wants to make it right.

Earlier this month, Edward Snowden, a 29-year-old contract systems administrator for the National Security Agency, revealed that his employer was secretly scarfing up data on the telephone and Internet communications of private citizens.

And just like that Snowden was out of a job, on the lam, and embedded into our collective consciousness as a whistleblower extraordinaire.

Your workplace’s actions don’t have to be a matter of national security to make you feel like your job would be on the line if you reported harassment or some other unethical behavior. But, as with most things, the workplace experts and human resources veteran we spoke with said there is a right way and a wrong way to do it—especially if you want to keep your job.

But first, some context. Marcia Miceli and Janet Near, authors of Blowing the Whistle define whistleblowing as: "The disclosure by organization members (former or current) of illegal, immoral or illegitimate practices under the control of their employers, to persons or organizations that may be able to effect action."

And it’s not always a bad thing, according to John Thornton Ph.D., Professor Leung chair of accounting ethics at Azusa Pacific University. "Whistleblowing has become increasingly viewed as socially acceptable, even desirable, a significant cultural change from as late as the 1960s and 70s, where essentially any whistleblowing was viewed as a breach of loyalty," he says. 

Blowing the whistle may have become popular because it’s effective, posits Thornton. (And Julia Roberts never hurts a cause.) Not every whistleblower works for a shadowy government contractor. Some argue that the entire financial crisis could have been averted if more financial insiders had come forward to alert the public about the sub-prime lending spree.

As U.S. officials engage in a manhunt for Snowden, now charged with two violations of the Espionage Act and one count of theft, American opinion is still split on whether he was right (44%) or wrong (42%) to share what he knew with the press, according to a Gallup poll. Thornton says, "Views differ greatly on whether whistleblowers are society's selfless servants, or whiners gone wild. I think there is plenty of evidence of both."

With that in mind, here's what you should consider before pulling a Snowden.

Examine the Risk vs. Reward
Risk comes at a high level whenever anyone moves in this direction, says David Lewis, president and CEO of OperationsInc, a human resources consulting firm. "You are assuming that the recipient of your information knows how to handle it in a way that doesn’t burn you," he says, "Rarely is that the case."

Lewis recommends asking yourself what you hope the outcome will be, before you pick up the phone in a fit of pique.

If you think your goal is realistic, find out if your company has a third party who handles such matters. Then you need to determine where the report goes. If it is the board of directors or the CEO, do you think they’ll react the way you want? "In short, the recipient of your input is the lynchpin," adds Lewis, so select wisely.

Blow Without Blowing Your Career
Joseph Grenny, co-author of Crucial Accountability says first, tend to your safety. "If raising the issue directly to your boss will cause you harm, seek security or legal assistance," he advises.

If there is no threat you should begin by letting your boss know you have their best interest in mind, says Grenny. "This shows your purpose is not to question their authority but to do the right thing." Likewise, it is important to explain to them why you won’t participate in unethical practices and what consequence you see as a result of the company’s bad behavior.

If your boss is willing to discuss the matter with you, have the conversation so you can make sure you understand their perspective and potentially find an alternate solution, suggests Grenny.

Taking it to your immediate supervisor to start shows your respect for the chain of command, he adds, but if that person refuses to talk about it, talk to their supervisor or suggest that the three of you meet together.

Human Resources Should Play a Role, Too
University of New Haven’s chair of the industrial psychology department Stuart Sidle, says that a whistleblower is commonly reporting to company officials or regulatory bodies who can influence the situation and Snowden’s leak might better be defined as activism considering his approach and alleged agenda. For the average company HR department Sidle says grievance policies are important, but it is essential that companies clearly define "whistleblower" and show how it is different from activism for the social good.

Then it’s helpful to provide options for those who may feel threatened by the standard options for reporting—like if the HR manager is the source of the unethical behavior—he explains. Once a policy is in place, staffers need to feel like they won’t be labeled psychopaths if they report a grievance. "If serious complaints are quickly explained off as just the rantings of a mentally unstable employee, then the employee and all company stakeholders should question the hiring practices at the company," Sidle says.

Whatever becomes of Snowden (we’ll keep you posted) whistleblowing remains a workplace conundrum. "On the positive side, people on the ground have the best opportunity to see problems and effect change," notes Thornton, "On the negative side, many people have an axe to grind, have strong political convictions that may be contrary to the populace, or just want to torch someone on the way out." Finally, he cautions, "Courts rarely side with whistleblowers, despite considerable legal changes to aid the ethical ones."

[Whistle Image: Winston Link via Shutterstock]

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  • PL

    Can we please separate the two issues? There is "whistleblowing" and there is "stealing documents and running to an ememy state" --- In this case Snowden did both, but he didn't have to run..

  • J_Prof

    This is terrible advice.  If you are going to quietly blow a whistle, you basically file anonymous complaints with as many external public interest and government bureaus as will listen to you.   And at least talk to a lawyer (perhaps referral through the Bar Association if you don't know who to call).  And keep your activities secret from anyone in the firm.  HR departments do not (ever) have employee interests in mind; HR departments are repositories for dead wood that no one wants elsewhere, but who have too much political pull or seniority to let go.  HR departments will invariably side with senior management in disputes.   Letting them know about problems early just gives them the nails to seal your coffin.

  • Muzzle30

    In my experience, HR Departments very rarely take an active role. In fact, they are more concerned about settling any controversies. I've known a few folks who had workplace issues, and I advised them the same thing, to take it to HR if they felt their bosses would retaliate. The end result? HR worked with the boss to find a legal way to fire the employee (i.e. tardiness, downsizing, etc.). And I wouldn't agree to describing what Snowden did to "activism". You can look at the current Obama Administrations treatment of such folks and realize the low prospects you have for coming forth to your bosses, especialllly at Booze Allehn! 

  • ssidle

    I see it as activism because he had options to report it to more responsible outlets who would have been happy to investigate. And it appears he has an agenda that is broader than stopping specific illegal, immoral or illegitimate abuses of power under the control of  his employers.

  • 4prongpitchfork

     quote:"I see it as activism because he had options to report it to more responsible outlets who would have been happy to investigate."unquote

    Rolling on the floor in gut splitting laughter notwithstanding, anyone who has watched the War on Terror unfold in this country for 12 yrs knows what happens to whistle blowers who go through legal channels within the USG.  These so called "options" you speak of who would be "happy to investigate" actually trigger the very actions that end in prosecution of the whistle blower instead of the an investigation into the object of their whistle blowing.  Case in point Thomas Drake, a former Senior Executive at NSA who was charged under the
    espionage act after he blew the whistle on waste and fraud and illegal
    activity at the intelligence agency, was prosecuted with impunity after going through...ahem..those "options", as were many many more, Peter Van Buren notwithstanding.
      Now I know it's fun to pretend your skull cavity is filled with grey matter instead of excrement, but damn dude...suspending reality INDEFINITELY???? Now that's a trick..even for humans..
      Moreover, the use of Snowdens  name in relationship to corporate HR issues really illustrates how American media operates at the bottom of the shamelessness cesspool. Nice try though. Next time, take a bath in chlorine before you start least the stench won't permeate your site.