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Hostile Work Environments

The Escalation Retaliation Cycle


O'Day's retaliation progression

  • nullify the complaint (pressure to stay silent)
  • isolate the complainant within the organization and limit access to resources
  • defame the complainant's character
  • secure the complainant's expulsion or withdrawal from the organization
Few whistleblowers foresee their initial disclosures as bridge-burning. And, indeed, most internal feedback does not lead to retaliation, under any practical study. Yet retaliation does happen, probably against about a third of federal employees who reveal significant fraud, waste or mismanagement of government resources. Most of these victims considered themselves loyal civil servants, at least at first. Sometimes supervisory and coworker pressure has the effect managers intend--silence resumes until the system blows. When retaliation escalates, un-listened-to disclosures mount--in volume, quantity and audience--as the working environment becomes more hostile for all, not just whistleblowers. Chilling supplants First Amendment-approved discussions.

Creating Many Victims

A hostile work environment affects coworkers witnessing the retaliation, as well as the victim employee/ ex-whistleblowers. To the extent coworkers identify with the victim, they can take a "there but for the grace of God go I" attitude and avoid future dissent themselves, as well as disassociating from the whistleblower. However, this chills the necessary free flow of ideas within the organization. As speech withers, morale plummets.

Encouraging Retaliation Against Whistleblowers

Personnel (a/k/a human resources) officials usually support managers over employees. Some even do their best to implement a manager's order to get rid of the troublemaker, advising isolating and defaming the employee-witness rather then complying with anti-retaliation laws. So long as upper level managers and judges consider retaliation merely hardball, illegal retaliation will flourish. Condoning hostile work environments so long as the victim employee signs an agreement abandoning recourse to the courts or law enforcement, or takes a disability retirement encourages disrespect for the very laws the Executive Branch is supposed to enforce.

Silence as the Problem

Retaliation, like blackmail, coerces (or at least encourages) silence. Even ethically challenged managers rarely ask star employees to commit questionable or illegal practices. Instead, employees asked or told to act either contrary to the law or in gray areas are usually either blind to the moral issues involved or vulnerable to graymail (or worse). Fear of job loss or public exposure of some shame or vulnerability can lead government employees to cover-up questionable practices. Good government suffers. Then, citizens and taxpayers lose.

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