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Whistleblower retaliation can bring major trauma to federal workers

Subtle but severe psychological harm can result from reprisals for reporting illegalities at an agency.

Federal employees have the legal right to report wrongdoing within their agencies without fear of retaliation. The government encourages such whistleblowing as a way to uncover illegality, waste, fraud and other wrongful acts within federal agencies – problems that employees on the inside are most likely to uncover.

The Merit Systems Protection Board notes that federal law protects an employee who discloses a “violation of law, rule, or regulation, gross mismanagement, a gross waste of funds, an abuse of authority, or a ‘substantial and specific danger’ to public health or safety.”

Reprisals happen despite laws forbidding them

Federal law forbids retaliatory actions against whistleblowers, but unfortunately, reprisals against those who blow the whistle still occur. And the damage and harm experienced by the whistleblower from retaliation can be significant and insidious. Sometimes a reprisal seems obvious like a termination, demotion or disciplinary action that happens right after the whistleblowing and without justification considering the person’s acceptable work record or job performance.


But other kinds of reprisals are harder to identify. Is the person excluded from meetings and social events? Does the person feel awkward socially because other employees have ghosted them through isolation or are treating them differently, such as with hostility? Did others begin to bully the whistleblower? Are people talking about the person in derogatory or untrue terms?

Workplace traumatic stress

Retaliation can occur in countless forms, but Jackie Garrick, a prominent whistleblower expert and former federal employee, studies the psychological impact of whistleblower retaliation. After extensive research with Martina Buck, Garrick concluded that reprisals may cause “workplace traumatic stress, which causes moral injury . . . and can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, substance abuse and even suicide .  . .  Related symptoms may include “discouragement, hopelessness, unfairness and failure.”

Moral injury occurs when a person has acted according to what their internal moral code tells them to do but others attack them for what the whistleblower thought was the right and proper action.

Whistleblower retaliation checklist

Garrick and Buck created the “whistleblower retaliation checklist” after extensive interviewing of whistleblowers who had experienced retaliation, including through micro-aggressions. Their nine categories of retaliation:

  1. Gaslighting
  2. Mobbing (group bullying)
  3. Marginalization
  4. Shunning
  5. Devaluation (such as through unfair performance reviews)
  6. Double binding
  7. Blacklisting
  8. Counter accusations
  9. Emotional and physical violence (like stalking, publishing private information on the internet, harming personal property, cyberbullying or similar aggressive actions)

Proving subjective harm from retaliation

Skilled legal counsel can be an important guide through this complex situation. A whistleblower suffering from the effects of retaliatory behavior may have legal remedies before the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB) for unlawful retaliation, for example. But proving the existence of a psychological, emotional or mental injury can be difficult as can tying it to retaliation as the cause.

An experienced federal-sector employment lawyer will investigate to uncover evidence to support the retaliation claim and the request for corrective action. In addition to financial, vocational and professional harm, the attorney may present evidence supporting mental injury like medical or therapy bills; testimony from the whistleblower and their family members, colleagues, friends and others about their observations of symptoms from the emotional harm; related hospital, clinical or therapeutic medical records or assessments; and more.