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Blowing the Whistle on Harmful Behaviors at Work

The impact of institutional betrayal on those who “commit the truth."

Key points

  • Whistleblowing is the disclosure of wrongdoing to a person with the power to impact change.
  • Whistleblowers possess a strong ethical identity and the moral courage to speak up in the face of injustice.
  • Organizations employ gaslighting behaviors in an effort to make the whistleblower doubt her reality.
  • Institutional betrayal occurs when an organization fails to protect those it is called to serve.
Photo by Jessica Favaro on Unsplash
Photo by Jessica Favaro on Unsplash

Humans are storytelling beings, constructing life’s meaning through narrative. There are stories we tell ourselves, about who we are and what we value, and stories we take in from others. Our stories at work are often centered on tasks, missions, projects, and relationships. When our stories make sense, even if we do not like them, we feel a sense of equilibrium. For example, the colleague who snubs us at work, leaves us out of conversations, and refuses to return our greeting when we say hello in the hall may upset us, but over time, we come to expect this behavior, or storyline, so it doesn’t make us doubt our reality. However, when a colleague or boss shows support for our ideas and understanding of our concerns when we are together, and then later we find out they have actively sullied our reputation and attempted to sabotage our career, well, that we didn’t see coming, and all of a sudden the world is topsy turvy, and nothing is like it seems. Research shows this upside-down reality has serious consequences, evoking anxiety, depression, and other health concerns (Perron et al., 2020).

Such professional and personal fallout is significantly amplified for whistleblowers, who courageously call out abuse, bullying, cheating, illegal activities, and other injustices to those with the power to fix the problem. If such a disclosure is initially met with concern and a promise to investigate and act, yet later, instead of addressing the problem, the person in power attacks the whistleblower, the whistleblower experiences what psychologist Ronnie Janoff-Bulman (1992) describes as “shattered assumptions,” forcing her to re-evaluate her belief that the world is benevolent, meaningful, and that she is, in fact, worthy.

What Is Whistleblowing and Who Are Whistleblowers?

Near and Miceli (1985) defined 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” (p.4). According to research, whistleblowers share common characteristics, including a strong ethical identity, moral courage, and tenacity to act in the face of injustice, viewing disclosure of harm and wrongdoing as an obligation, not a choice, even when it comes at the cost of their reputation and career, as it unfortunately so often does (Mesmer-Magnus and Viswesvaran, 2005; Özdemir, 2013; Perron et al., 2020). Whistleblowers tend to be highly educated and, prior to the disclosure of wrongdoing, are regarded as well-respected, high-achieving bridge-builders at their organization (Ahern, 2018).

How Is Gaslighting Used as a Tool to Discredit, Destabilize, and Silence the Whistleblower?

Here’s the game: during the comprehensive, full-day job interview and subsequent orientation, there are extensive discussions about the organization’s mission, commitment to excellence, support of innovation, and dedication to an inclusive work environment. You are hired, by their definition, to be a change-maker. Following extensive one-on-one meetings with various stakeholders, you work with colleagues to address the department’s stagnation and toxic work culture, as asked. Rave reviews flow in from constituents, who are energized and relieved by the changes. Your boss praises your efforts and bestows large bonuses for a job well done. Your assistant, charged with supporting the process, provides insights and suggestions for impactful next steps. Your mental map indicates a positive progression.

It soon becomes apparent that there is a group of employees engaging in ethical violations and bullying behaviors that are directly hurting the people the organization is committed to serving, as well as snuffing out innovation and thwarting community belonging. Concerned, you report these findings to your boss and elicit help from your assistant. In response, your boss and assistant admit this is a long-standing problem and pledge their support to help you emphatically and systematically address the issues. Your mental map indicates a supportive administrative structure. Instead, unbeknownst to you, your boss and assistant join forces to sully your reputation and push you out of the job, for it is much easier to shoot the messenger than address deeply institutionalized problems.

Almost immediately, you start to be left out of meetings, snubbed in the halls, and have essential resources for running your department revoked. Now, your mental map is one of a hostile work environment and a bullying culture. Sensing retaliation, you voice your concern to your boss. Inside that meeting, she again praises your work and pledges her support, suggesting “you are simply tired and overworked, which is causing you to be too sensitive and paranoid.” In essence, you are told that your mental map is faulty and that what you are feeling, seeing, and experiencing is inaccurate. The disconnect created by what your mental map is telling you and the altered reality that is being sold induces exhaustion, anxiety, and a sense of hopelessness. Within six months, your boss and assistant remove their masks, launch overt attacks, and drive you out of your position.

All of your suspicions have proven true, but it is too late. The damage is done. In order to cover up the abuse, you are coerced into participating in forced arbitration and signing a non-disclosure agreement, assuring your silence and allowing them to continue to control the narrative (Know Your Rights Campaign in Lift Our Voices, n.d.).

This is organizational gaslighting. Gaslighting, according to Ramani (2024), “operates through a systematic pattern of generating doubt about your experiences, memory, perception, judgment, and emotions. Sustained gaslighting causes you to question reality, and it qualifies as emotional abuse” (p, 43). Gaslighting occurs over time, capitalizing on the trust you bestowed on an individual or organization, and allows the gaslighter to retain power by denying wrongdoing and calling into question your mental map and stability (Ramini, 2024). As Ahern (2018) explains, “traumatized whistleblowers are using a faulty “mental map” in which they erroneously believe their allegations will be investigated and that they will be protected” (p. 60).

How Does Institutional Betrayal Exacerbate the Harm?

The research on institutional betrayal originated from betrayal trauma theory (BTT), by Freyd (1994). Institutional betrayal is often embedded within the structure of the organization, yet due to the administration’s silencing strategies, may present as an isolated case (Gómez et al., 2016). Whistleblowers within institutions are punished for carrying out their direct job responsibilities, such as the nurse who reports negligent patient care or the accountant who discloses faulty financial statements. These whistleblowers are villainized when their only crime is what Devine and Maassarani (2011) call “committing the truth.”

Institutional betrayal rarely happens within a vacuum but requires complicit, “bad followers.” As Solas (2019) describes, “Bad leaders would not be able to realize their ambitions without the support of dedicated, opportunistic, docile, or indifferent followers. Their success is assured by the complicity of the silent majority. Going along with villainy certainly resolves the dilemma of self-sacrifice” (p.45).

Though institutional betrayal can occur within any organization, there are shared characteristics that make it more probable, including an intellectual culture of conformity, resistance to change, embedded prestige, the normalization of bullying behaviors, and the use of DARVO tactics, which stands for "Deny, Attack, and Reverse Victim and Offender" (Harsey & Freyd, 2020; Parnitzke and Freyd, 2014).

How Do Whistleblowers Find Hope?

The first step in regaining hope is acknowledging the significant trauma suffered and seeking out a licensed therapist to shepherd the journey back to health, so once again, you come to value and trust your mental map, capabilities, and worthiness. Second, soothing can be found within research suggesting that though whistleblowers often suffer consequential and immediate retaliation, over time, and outside their abusive organization, they are upheld by the larger community as role models for speaking up for justice and giving a voice to the voiceless (Kenny, 2019). Whistleblowing creates a small ripple that incrementally emanates out to induce impactful change and inclusive communities. Slowly, and then all at once, the most tragic parts of your story serve as a catalyst for a bigger life, only possible because of your past pains.

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