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Two business school professors who published several studies on retaliation (including studying early whistleblower cases filed with the MSPB a decade or more ago) found retaliation occurred about 20% of the time. See Marcia P. Miceli and Janet P. Near, Blowing the Whistle: the Organizational and Legal Implications for Companies and Employees (New York: Lexington Books, 1992).

Whistleblower demographics are skewed. Whistleblowers are most often either new employees (unfamiliar with the look-the-other-way norm), or near-retirement employees (who may be making a last stand for longstanding principles and for whom pensions provide a backstop if the situation becomes too crazy). While Erin Brockovich, Linda Tripp, Sherron Watkins and Colleen Rowley are women, these somewhat dated academic studies found most federal whistleblowers were male. So does a recent informal study by the National Whistleblower Center. Cultural attitudes and access to information about how to complain legally probably matter. Still, scholarly updates are needed.

In any event, where retaliation begins, some whistleblowers realize the extent to which the deck can be stacked against them in a hostile work environment. Harassment can be subtle or quite public. Unfortunately, employees with the best-documented cases of most serious wrongdoing appear to experience the most retaliation. Perhaps that's because a cornered wrongdoer tends to fight the most fiercely. Rational victims might well choose departure and silence, the retaliator's desired outcomes.

Departure can chill further speech about workplace problems. Most federal whistleblowers have held jobs with the agency for several years before their unsuccessful internal attempts at reform. Watching coworkers can rightly fear, for example, that the retaliating supervisor will likewise retaliate, at the very least orally during reference checks by potential future employers. Backstabbing badmouthing can be downright inaccurate. Yet, today, most potential employers comprehend a "no comment" as a bad reference, either about employee misconduct or because no one wants to hire a suspected troublemaker.

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