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Whistle-blowing: The Ins and Outs

Headshot for Richard Smoley.

You may be tired of seeing the word “whistleblower” at this point, but the current furor may provide a good opportunity to think about whistleblowing and its consequences.

A whistleblower is, Merriam-Webster’s dictionary tells us, “an employee who brings wrongdoing by an employer or other employees to the attention of a government or law enforcement agency and who is commonly vested by statute with rights and remedies for retaliation.”

Although shipping lettuce and potatoes may seem a world away from high crimes and misdemeanors, malfeasance regularly takes place in the industry, as we see from the dismayingly frequent reports of drug shipments in produce. (Over one busy October weekend, 590 pounds of methamphetamine, 18 pounds of cocaine, 5 pounds of heroin, and 617 pounds of marijuana were found in produce shipments.)

When it comes to smuggling narcotics, the issue is black-and-white, but in many other cases, it isn’t. Acting in response to wrongdoing is “a very risky proposition for an employee who would like to stay working at the company,” says Janice Bellace, professor emeritus of legal studies and business ethics at the Wharton School of business. Whistleblowers face any number of possible consequences, from being ostracized to losing their jobs.

Admittedly, there are laws protecting whistleblowers. The most relevant to the produce industry are those in the Food Safety and Modernization Act (FSMA). By these regulations, employees can bring a complaint with the Secretary of Labor claiming that the company has punished them for whistleblowing. If the Labor Department rules in the employee’s favor, the company must, among other things, “reinstate the complainant to his or her former position together with the compensation of that position (including back pay) and . . . provide compensatory damages to the complainant”.

Not that this necessarily makes things easy. A company can reinstate the complainant to her former position but can still make life very difficult for her in many different ways. The employee also runs the risk of being stigmatized as a troublemaker (gossip has a remarkable agile way of mauling the truth).

The solution? For employees, in the first place, it’s a good idea to know exactly what rules or regulations are being violated. Avoid doing things on your own that may be unethical (such as looking into files for which you have no authorization). You may also want to consult a lawyer who specializes in whistleblowing cases before taking action. But do so discreetly: if the company finds out, they may regard this as a hostile act in its own right.

The decision to point out wrongdoing in the workplace is always going to be a complex one, and in the end, you will have to make it in the light of your own situation. But at the very least, it’s wise to avoid or refuse to do anything you know to be illegal or unethical, even if you are ordered to. This is a matter of self-interest as well as ethics, because shady companies, when caught, try to pass the blame on to the lowest individual on the totem pole.

Furthermore, if your employer has a longstanding tradition of dishonest practices (whether among employees or in management itself), sooner or later you will probably need to find another job.

From the employer’s point of view, ethical leadership is the most important factor. Stating company values is important, but it’s even more important to live by them. Among other things, that means getting rid of the “results at all costs” mentality.

Well Fargo notoriously fell into this trap in 2016, when it was discovered that employees had signed up many customers to accounts without telling them. “Employees were getting the clear message that the company didn’t care that its sales goals were unreasonable. Goals were to be met even if it meant signing up customers to new accounts without their consent or knowledge,” says an article on the Wharton School website.

In a perfect world, there would be no whistleblowers, because there would be no need of them. But that’s not the world we live in.


Richard Smoley, editor for Blue Book Services, Inc., has more than 40 years of experience in magazine writing and editing, and is the former managing editor of California Farmer magazine. A graduate of Harvard and Oxford universities, he has published eleven books.