Whistleblowers are often challenged on their motive. Did they speak up for the greater good, or for grudges and gain?
Institutions attack motive to confound whistleblowers’ claims. Any potential blemish is used to shame the whistleblower, however true their concern and however false the institution.
Perhaps this is why whistleblowers can seem anxious to prove not just their concerns, but their motive. More so, when money’s involved – as per these three examples:
(1) Settlements that suppress?
The harsh facts of litigation mean institutions are well placed to squeeze whistleblowers into pay-offs.
Settlements are criticised as means to bury problems, halt learning and incentivize bad faith. So whistleblowers who accept pay-offs can feel tarnished.
In contrast, settlements serve institutions well. Pitched as compensation, they shield reputation; like just another PR spend.
(2) Rewards for results?
Alternatives include rewarding whistleblowers upfront, on the basis of issues put right, or harms avoided. A claimed advantage is that concerns are investigated rather than suppressed (see 1).
But US attempts at this model face criticism that they don’t work and become avenues for corporate greed; where law firms profit from methods that may be better suited to tackling financial fraud than patient safety.
(3) Only the popular need apply?
Another way to tackle institutions is for whistleblowers to crowdfund; then hire legal representation to protect themselves.
This model’s criticised for favouring popular whistleblowers. But this would seem to prefer all whistleblowers are left clinging on; without cash or counsel; outgunned by institutions; and vulnerable to quiet settlements (see 1).
The wrong target?
Whatever one thinks of 1 to 3, the criticisms seem to buy into an institutional attack that lacks merit.
Were money the motive, the rational choice would be to keep quiet; to look after your career, pension, house and relationships. Even in the US, most whistleblowers don’t get big rewards. Those that do can still face years of litigation, stigma and damage to health and career.
Yet whistleblowers can sometimes be hasty to use the institutional attack on each other. Institutions may prefer this, as focus shifts from avoidable harm, to whistleblowers arguing over who’s the fairest of them all.
This also distracts from understanding the motives of other staff. Often in healthcare failures, as Sir Ian Kennedy QC has pointed out, the scandal is not that nobody knew, but that everybody did. We need to fathom why more don’t speak up, rather than fall out amongst the few who do.
After all, the NHS has paid out billions over the years – to many staff who saw the problems but said nothing.