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.

How To Whistleblow Like Edward Snowden Without Blowing Your Career

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]

About the author

Lydia Dishman is a reporter writing about the intersection of tech, leadership, and innovation. She is a regular contributor to Fast Company and has written for CBS Moneywatch, Fortune, The Guardian, Popular Science, and the New York Times, among others.