So, you’re thinking of becoming a whistleblower?
Bet you didn’t come to this decision easily. Maybe you didn’t even realize you were on the path to becoming a whistleblower until you’d already taken several steps.
“You have to be somebody who’s not terribly sensitive about what people say about you, particularly when they’re aggressively lying. You have to be able to take that and deal with it and keep moving through.”
Andrew Russo, Archipel Capital whistleblower
How you got here isn’t important. You’re here.
Five corporate whistleblowers who spoke to Compliance Week for its recent series, “Witness to Wrongdoing: Whistleblowers share their stories,” could give you an idea as to what’s next. We’ve also interviewed a whistleblower attorney to hear what he and his colleagues tell potential clients before advising them to file a lawsuit.
Here’s some advice to consider before deciding to blow the whistle:
Prepare yourself for stress caused by personal and financial hardships. Whistleblowers must be made of pretty strong stuff, said Andrew Russo, who blew the whistle on a $5.3 million investment fraud perpetrated by a childhood acquaintance. The Securities and Exchange Commission announced charges in the case in 2015.
“You have to be somebody who’s not terribly sensitive about what people say about you, particularly when they’re aggressively lying. You have to be able to take that and deal with it and keep moving through,” Russo said. “It probably helps to have a good support network—strong relationships with your spouse, with your family, and with folks that you’re going to need to vent to frequently as you go through and who aren’t going to get sick and tired of listening to you.”
A 2010 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine of 26 whistleblowers in False Claims Act cases reported they had high incidents of financial difficulties, severe marital strain, divorce, and stress-related health problems. Notably, the report found stress and strain were more pronounced in whistleblowers who were employees of the firm they reported on (insiders) rather than those who blew the whistle as outsiders.
Don’t go it alone. In order to protect their anonymity, whistleblowers are often barred from speaking to anyone about their case. But they should confide in their spouse or someone close, if only to keep their sanity.
Sherron Watkins, whose blowing the whistle on massive accounting fraud at Enron brought the company down in 2001, said finding an ally who can join in coming forward is worth the effort.
“I would always say talk among your peers,” she said. “Try to change the balance of power, make sure others kind of agree with you. Don’t go it alone. That was my mistake. Get others to go with you. Try to change the balance of power there in numbers.”
There are examples of two, three, or even more people at the same firm all blowing the whistle on the same fraud, providing different vantage points to help investigators fully understand its scope. Although sharing the burden of reporting the fraud means splitting the award at the end of the process, reporting as a group is probably better for your mental health.
Recognize you cannot solve the problem yourself. The CEO, president, or owner of the company can address the wrongdoing, as can the board of directors. Regulators and law enforcement also have a part to play.
As the whistleblower, you did your job by pointing the misconduct out. Step aside, let your facts speak for themselves, and trust other professionals to do their jobs.
“In my view, you’re a little bit like an Old Testament prophet,” said Watkins. “You tell the king he’s doing wrong; you better straighten up or bad things are going to happen. Some of the kings straightened up and all was well, and some of the kings didn’t. And bad things happened.
“That prophet usually wasn’t well-liked, but they weren’t in charge of fixing the problem. They are just in charge of delivering the bad news. So don’t get married to trying to fix the problem, because that’s where I see mental health issues arise.”
Find a good lawyer. There are lots of firms out there that specialize in whistleblower cases. Do some research and find one with whom you are comfortable.
You could start with the National Whistleblower Legal Defense and Education Fund, an independent public interest law firm that provides free legal advice to whistleblowers founded by the whistleblower firm of Kohn, Kohn & Colapinto. Other well-known and reputable whistleblower firms include Constantine Cannon, which offers this primer on choosing a good whistleblower attorney; Phillips & Cohen; and Labaton Sucharow. This list is far from exhaustive.
When picking a lawyer, make sure you have a good rapport. This person, in addition to being your legal advisor for what might be a yearslong journey, will also be a confidant, amateur psychologist, and sounding board. Blowing the whistle is an isolating experience, and your lawyer is often the only person who understands what you’re going through.
Be patient. Blowing the whistle is typically a drawn-out process, from a year to more than a decade. That’s a long time to wait for a payoff.
For most of that time, you’re stuck in limbo. You’ve done your job; you’ve handed over all the evidence you have; and in some cases, you’ve answered questions of regulators and law enforcement. Often it takes years after a criminal or civil case is settled by a court or regulator for a whistleblower to receive his or her award. And during that limbo period, there is a dearth of information.
“I tell my clients to think of the payout like a lottery ticket,” said whistleblower attorney Michael Ronickher of Constantine Cannon. “Imagine you placed that lottery ticket in a drawer and you won’t actually get to cash it in for five to seven years. Then get on with your life.”
CW whistleblower series: ‘Witness to Wrongdoing’
- Currently reading
Five pieces of advice for potential whistleblowers