Person standing alone in black & white industrial scene.

Is anyone else’s Post-Traumatic Stress riled up because of the recent national discourse on whistle blowers and retaliation?  Mine is. All this talk of who they are, if their identity could be disclosed (and some media are disclosing), and what are both the legal and long-term career ramifications for the whistle blower causes me to physically shake sometimes.

I’ve been sitting on this disclosure about myself for a long time.  There is absolutely no way that I can disclose this about myself without casting blame at a former employer. I’ve tried to think of ways to disguise which one it was or to not name them. Isn’t that interesting? I’m the one damaged by standing up for what was right, but I’m thinking of how to protect the very organization that damaged me. Victim advocates are probably hyperventilating right now. Rightly so.

It also has not escaped me that by writing what I do here, I put doubt in the minds of some future employers that will shy away from hiring me.  Indeed, I recently had to answer a question on a job application that said, “Have you ever been party to a lawsuit involving harassment or retaliation?” Oo, I contemplated clicking No to that. I wished the answer was no. Couldn’t the answer be no if I wanted it so badly to be no? But I was applying to a news organization known for investigative journalism so I swallowed hard and clicked Yes. Thankfully, a pop-up box now said “Please explain the situation, including the resolution.” After I wrote it out (for the first time ever) I realized that not only were the words not scary but I was, actually, the hero of my own story. 

I’ve been beating myself up that I did something wrong because I was involved and my company made me feel inferior for such a long time afterwards. But in reality, I stood up for the light. One more nudge from a fellow author to write my story and I was ready. It’s time. Damn the torpedoes. Full steam ahead.

I’ve come to two important conclusions:

  1. Societal structures in place are designed to silence whistle blowers (and females) (and minorities) (and everyone that wants to exhibit power over you). You do not need to give them permission to silence you.
  2. I may struggle to find the courage to speak for myself but I can find my voice if I realize that I’m speaking for others.

Thus, I’m writing my story in the hope that out there there are other whistle blowers that, in the quiet of their lives, continuously carry their horrible scars and they will read this and know that they are not alone.

Fun fact about whistle blowers: they didn’t aspire to be one. 

No one picks whistle blower as your future career and draws a crayon drawing of it. To be a whistle blower, you have to have been inside the darkness (yes, in it) and then make your decision to step forward and cast the event into the light.  You know your job is at risk. You know your reputation is at risk. My colleagues out there, you are not alone.

Here is my story:

I had an employee that worked for me that, while good at their front-line job, was a pain to all of their coworkers including high up the chain of command.  At one point, I was specifically asked to put them on a “tight rope.” (See image of my notes from that day below.)

Hand written notes

For her annual performance review, I was advised to write the employee up as poor in every category.  It took me days to gather the information. Not five minutes after I emailed a copy of the evaluation to the employee did they inform me back that they had HR ‘on the other line’.  In a very short period of time, the company was informed that a retaliation lawsuit had been filed against us. I was advised to neither destroy nor alter any documentation.

All up to this point, I was following instructions.  I was a newer leader and really, I did not know any better.  Additionally, I was repeatedly told that Human Resources (HR) was fully informed, knew what we were doing, and totally supported our actions.  Many times, I was asked about the evaluation, “It’s all true, right?” I said, “Everything that I wrote about did happen,” but I didn’t say “Remember, you asked me to push this.”  Soon, I was informed that an internal investigation was complete and that I had been found to be innocent of the charges (which, yeah, I was expecting). I was informed that all would be fine now and we were to carry on. (Heads-up: if all “official” communication you receive is transmitted in an unfixed manner [aka phone calls] be wary. It’s a known way *not* to leave a paper trail.)

You’d think I just told you about a retaliation case.  But I’m just starting the story.

I was left with one final piece of advice on the phone call.  “Hey, uh, don’t put anything in writing to that employee anymore.” That stuck with me.  I tossed and turned that night instead of sleeping. I didn’t know much about HR or about employee law (at all!) but that seemed to be the opposite of what one is supposed to do when things get sticky.  The scientist in me said, “No, you document EVERYTHING.” I called HR directly the next day; the first time I had time to talk alone with HR in this entire process.  The person reassured me that I had been found innocent of the charges and everything was fine.  I asked if I could have a few more minutes of their time to “go over some things.” Then, I asked for confidentiality.  

I told them the entire story: how starting months prior, I was instructed to get this employee to see they they needed to leave the company.  How I had been coached to write this employee up multiple times. How I had been instructed to write their performance evaluation. The HR person became very quiet. 

First question: Is what you wrote in the performance evaluation true? 

I said, “It’s the truth, pushed.” 

Second question: Did the person who told you to do this say why you needed to do this?

“Yes, because the employee was ‘talking bad [about the person]’ around another part of the company and ‘needed to be taught a lesson’.” 

I can point to this very moment as when I started to lose my job. Until this moment, I didn’t even know that what we were doing was against employment law. I didn’t realize that I was the smoking gun. I had been placed in the position to execute the retaliation so that the true instigators were insulated from the event. The HR person informed me that my confidentiality could NOT be guaranteed now because I was the only witness to these conversations.  Everyone else present from those conversations would know who I was.

I took a breath and said, “I’m willing to accept the consequences.”

The case with the employee immediately went to settlement. I was instructed to write up another evaluation; this one truthful and accurate. The employee was moved to another job within the same company.  One person was held immediately responsible for what happened. I’ve purposely been disguising names and titles (using ‘person’) because I’m not writing to indict them, I’m writing to free myself from this prison of silence. Interestingly, they did not finger the other person who was the ultimate instigator here. To the best of my knowledge, the employee never knew who was actually the cause of that retaliation.  I’m pretty sure they still think it was me.

After this event, my raises became curtailed, I was discouraged from promotion, weekly required check-ins with me were cancelled for a wide variety of reasons, I received poor evaluations with no written justification, and new bosses of mine where advised (again only via voice) to get rid of me.  Eventually, I was put on written notice. I quit before I was fired, leaving behind a very successful career, impressive longevity at a dynamic organization, and many valued colleagues.

Wow, I miss the paycheck (!) but I do not miss that culture.  Just more proof that aligns with nearly every Disney movie ever made: there are some causes worth cleaving to that are larger and more important than money.

Peace whistle blowers.  Please know, you are not alone.