[Whistleblowing is] the reporting by employees and former employees of illegal, unethical, and otherwise inappropriate conduct to someone who has the power to take corrective action.

Terance D. Miethe, Whistleblowing at Work: Tough Choices in Exposing Fraud, Waste, and Abuse on the Job, Avalon Publishing, 1999.

For it to count as whistleblowing, you need to be going outside of your own chain of command. If you tell your boss or HR, that’s not whistleblowing; that’s just reporting.

To count as whistleblowing, you need to be blowing the whistle to somebody outside your own organization. That means telling your story publicly, by talking on social media or with a journalist, or reporting it to a body that oversees your employer, like a board of directors or a regulator or industry association.

To count as whistleblowing, experts say the whistleblower needs to be trying to prevent harm to other people, not just themselves. Usually with whistleblowing that harm is environmental or health related (like, if a company is releasing poisons into the air or water), financial (like, if a bank is overcharging customers), and/or legal (like, if a government is spying on its own citizens).

Some experts believe that reporting harassment doesn’t count as whistleblowing, because they think people report harassment to prevent harm to themselves, not others. We disagree. Practically everybody who reports harassment is motivated at least in part by wanting to prevent other people from being harassed. And so we believe that reporting harassment counts as whistleblowing.

Why people blow the whistle on sexual harassment

People who blow the whistle are usually motivated by a mix of moral outrage and a desire to protect others. Here are the kinds of things whistleblowers tend to be thinking when they blow the whistle:

  • Something bad is happening.
  • People are getting hurt.
  • The people who are supposed to fix the problem aren’t living up to their responsibilities.
  • What’s happening is being hidden or covered up.
  • It has been going on for too long and it needs to stop.
  • The public deserves to know the truth and people need to be held accountable.
  • I cannot stand to be associated with this.
  • I cannot live with myself if I am silent about this.

Here are some quotes from real people who blew the whistle, talking about why they did it.

This is far too rampant and I’m fucking tired of it. This wasn’t just about me, it was about everyone in the industry who faces this regularly.

In 2017, a bartender and social media manager at the Needle Vinyl Tavern in Edmonton quit her job and made a Facebook post complaining that one of the bar’s co-owners had sexually harassed her.

My fight was never about just me. My main goal was to make positive changes in the workplace so this would not happen to others.

In 2019, a former corrections officer complained to the Manitoba Human Rights Commission, saying he had endured years of harassment by his co-workers at the Manitoba Youth Centre because he is gay.

My intention all along was to speak out against harassment for my own protection, to make the workplace better and safer.

In 2007, a former firefighter complained to the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission, saying she had endured years of abusive and demeaning treatment from her co-workers because she is a woman.

I want to make sure that by standing up for myself, I may be standing up for those who may be gay or trans or lesbian or bisexual in our community who feel they don’t have a voice or who feel that they are oppressed and can’t speak up.

In 2019, an executive member of the New Waterford Nova Scotia Royal Canadian Legion filed a complaint with the legion and the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission, saying he was the subject of taunts and homophobic slurs because he is gay.

What happens to people who blow the whistle

“To run up against the organization,” C. Fred Alford writes in his book about whistleblowers, “is to risk obliteration.”

Here’s what experts say happens to whistleblowers:

  • It’s very common for them to get fired.
  • If they don’t get fired, they get sidelined and shut out at work.
  • Their co-workers turn against them.
  • They are often blacklisted out of their industry.
  • Their involvement can drag on for years, and take way more time and money than they expected.
  • Their families get mad at them for putting a “cause” ahead of the family, and their primary relationship—spouse, partner—often breaks down.
  • Their mental health suffers, often seriously. Many end up suffering from depression or alcoholism. Many consider suicide.
  • They suffer both short-term and long-term financial problems.
  • They end up taking a job that’s significantly worse than the one they used to have.

Here, in their own words, is what people say happened to them after they blew the whistle.

When you blow the whistle, you become poison to the company. Your presence makes them sick.

Unnamed whistleblower, as quoted in Whistleblowers: Broken Lives and Organizational Power, by C. Fred Alford.

Since I complained the men gather and talk about me and say the ‘little bitch’ won’t be happy till someone is fired.

A heavy equipment operator at a fly-in camp at the Mary River Mine in Nunavut complaining about sexual harassment in 2018.

I was expecting retribution within the unit. I wasn’t expecting that when it got to the senior executive arm of the military, when the higher levels stepped in, that they wouldn’t support me.

A former civilian employee at the Department of National Defence filed a grievance reporting sexual and racial harassment and was suspended and later fired.

It’s taken years and it’s taken our entire livelihood. I’ve already spent nearly $60,000 out of pocket for a human rights tribunal that hasn’t even started.

A former Toronto police officer talking about the financial and human cost of pursuing complaints against her fellow officers before the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario.

If you blow the whistle, there’s a chance you could get sued for defamation

If you say bad things about a person or a business, they might sue you for defamation. “Defamation” is a legal term. It describes what it’s called when someone publicly says something that isn’t true and that hurts the other person’s or company’s reputation.

Anybody can file a defamation case. They don’t have to have a good case; they just need enough money to pay a lawyer.

Do whistleblowers regret blowing the whistle?

I think I was crazy to blow the whistle. Only I don’t think I ever had a choice. It was speak up or stroke out.

Whistleblower John Brown, as quoted in Whistleblowers: Broken Lives and Organizational Power, by C. Fred Alford

If a whistleblower could go back in time, knowing exactly how everything would play out, would they still blow the whistle? Researchers say yes. Practically all whistleblowers say they would blow the whistle all over again, even if they knew exactly what would happen afterward.

That doesn’t mean they don’t regret it. Many do. The losses they’ve suffered are serious.

So why would they do it again? The experts say it’s because whistleblowers strongly believe in duty and responsibility. They just could not live with themselves, knowing about an injustice that was hurting people and was being ignored, if they didn’t at least try to do something about it.

That is part of why whistleblowing is so hard on people. Because they’re idealistic, and what happens afterward causes them to lose faith in their bosses, their co-workers, their family and friends, and the justice system.

From C. Fred Alford’s book Whistleblowers, here is a list of what Alford says whistleblowers believed before they blew the whistle, which they had to let go of afterward:

  • That law and justice can be relied upon.
  • That the individual will not be sacrificed for the sake of the group.
  • That your friends will be loyal even if your co-workers aren’t.
  • That the organization is not fundamentally immoral.
  • That someone, somewhere, who is in charge knows, cares, and will do the right thing.
  • That the truth matters, and someone will want to know it.
  • That if one is right and persistent, things will turn out all right in the end.
  • That even if they don’t turn out all right, other people will know and understand.
  • That the family is a haven in a heartless world, and your spouse and children will not abandon you.

How to decide whether to blow the whistle

We can’t tell you whether blowing the whistle is right for you. It’s a very personal decision.

Here’s what we can say.

Blowing the whistle is unlikely to get you justice.

But for some people blowing the whistle is the right answer anyway.

If you’re the kind of person who would blow the whistle, you probably know it already. If you’re not sure, ask yourself how you feel about these statements:

It’s important to tell the truth.
It’s important to keep your promises.
I have a strong sense of personal responsibility.
The real test of character is doing the right thing even when it’s hard.
To remain silent in the face of injustice is cowardly.
I couldn’t live with myself if I behaved without honour.
I couldn’t bear to associate with people who don’t live up to their obligations.
Privilege comes with responsibility, and responsibility requires accountability.
Integrity means doing the right thing, even if you end up being punished for it.